Saturday, December 29, 2007

12/29: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Tim Burton's version of the Stephen Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd is a devilishly clever, funny, and creepy ode to misanthropy and vengeance. The title role is the barber Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp), who renames himself Sweeney Todd after a lengthy enforced absence from London. He was exiled from his home by the powerful Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), who coveted Barker's beautiful wife, and upon Barker's return over a decade later, he finds that his wife has killed herself and their daughter has been adopted and virtually imprisoned by the judge. He swears vengeance on the judge, and sets up a new barber shop above the decrepit pie shop run by the widow Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). In the course of this vengeful quest, though, his hatred of the judge gradually spreads to the entire human race, and he unleashes a killing drive to rival the most vicious screen serial killers.

It's an unlikely subject for a musical, and though I haven't seen the original staging, Burton's adaptation does a fairly good job of balancing the macabre with the ludicrous, deftly positioning his film between horror and comedy. At the start, though, the production is a bit shaky, and the treatment of the musical numbers initially uncertain and awkward. The opening titles, with their video-game CGI effects, aren't the most promising introduction, but thankfully Burton tones down the CGI throughout most of the film. A few more wide shots of period London are equally distracting, and in an early scene he attempts a rapidly paced tour through the streets of this CGI town, which is badly mangled and so chintzy that it nearly derails the whole opening. Thankfully, once the film settles into interiors, Burton is able to create the atmosphere much more organically, with subtle elements of design and lighting, rather than resorting to entirely computer-created environments.

The opening also falters a bit in the translation of the Sondheim song book from stage to screen. The first musical number takes place in the very first scene after the credits, as Sweeney Todd arrives back in London on a ship. Todd is initially off-camera, and the focus is on the youthful sailor Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower), who sings an impassioned ode to London's joys. He's interrupted when Todd suddenly steps forward, taking over the foreground of the shot, and presents a much darker vision of London: "There's a hole in the world like a great black pit/ and the vermin of the world inhabit it." This is a perfect translation of the stage dynamic into cinematic visuals, allowing Todd's face to enter the frame and physically blot out Anthony just as his darker worldview pervades the narrative. But the rest of this number is handled much more clumsily, with the editing chopping up the song and switching in between lines to slightly different angles on Todd's face. Whereas the first entrance of Todd is deftly handled with a real awareness of space and framing, the rest of the scene disrupts this spatial care by pointlessly switching angles and cutting around the central figure as he sings. Musical numbers inevitably work best when there's a sense of space and movement built into them, and Burton's unmotivated cutting only calls attention to the lack of spatial definition in this scene. His edits here seem intended only to get "cool" angles on Depp's perpetually photogenic face, not to preserve the flow of the scene or the song.

Fortunately, once Todd arrives at Mrs. Lovett's pie shop, things get much better, and much smoother. It's even easy to forget about Depp's substandard singing voice when the musical numbers are so much fun, and the diabolical wit of the lyrics stings with practically every line. The introduction of Helena Bonham Carter, looking her frizzed-out, voluptuous, raccoon-eyed Marla Singer best, is also very welcome. She infuses her role with world-weary pathos and casually pragmatic cruelty, and does a much better job than Depp with the vocal duties, to boot. From her very first number, "The Worst Pies in London," it's clear that she adds a much-needed sardonic edge to the film's brutality, a sense that the violence and ugliness of this film reflects a world of poverty, rigidly defined class structures, and common people sadly resigned to their fates. Only Sweeney Todd is truly discontented enough with his rotten lot in life to do anything about it, and he strikes out in the most hideous ways, his every horrifying act a reflection of the horrors inflicted upon him and his class by society.

Once Mrs. Lovett enters the narrative as Todd's foil and partner, the film soars, and the clumsiness of the opening few scenes is quickly forgotten. These two engage in wittily arranged numbers, like the scene where Todd sings a love song to his razors, while in the background the pitiful Lovett is pining for Todd, their lyrics occasionally joining in identical expressions of love for different objects. Even better are the deliriously naughty pas de deux numbers, like the one where Lovett concocts her fiendish plan for disposing of the bodies Todd leaves behind, and the duo twirl around the shop in a mad dance, bursting with excitement and energy. Their every appearance together is a real joy to watch, even in the potentially silly scene where Mrs. Lovett imagines an idyllic life with Todd by the sea — her hopeful pragmatism and his stoic gloominess provide a perfect counterpoint to the sunny skies and warm colors that are absent everywhere else in the film's grey and brown palette. There's not a scene between these two that doesn't sparkle with weird charm and vivacity, even when the subject of the songs is murder and cannibalism.

The film is less successful when it diverts from this central duo, which it thankfully doesn't do too often. Anthony has a perfunctory role as the wide-eyed innocent who falls for Johanna (Jayne Wisener), Todd's captive daughter, at first sight. His narrative of naïve young love is obviously the exact opposite of Todd's disillusionment with the world, and the film suggests that the only reason for Anthony's optimism is that he hasn't experienced enough yet. Give him time, and he'll head down that path as well. Even the young and beautiful Johanna is tainted by her captivity at the judge's home, and she holds out little hope by the end of the film that anything will ever be better, even once she escapes her tormentor's clutches. This love story is given short shrift in the film, though, and its brief diversions from the central Todd/Lovett plot are mostly unwelcome. Anthony's songs to Johanna may well be a parody of young love's excesses — and lines like "I'll steal you, Johnna" have more than a little tinge of creepiness — but the fact remains that they're saccharine and grating in comparison to the more vibrant Todd and Lovett numbers. It's therefore a good thing that this less interesting couple gets much less screentime, though the result is that their story winds up so under-developed that one wonders why they're here at all — presumably the original play fleshes out their story more fully.

Quibbles aside, Sweeney Todd is an excellent film, a nasty piece of work that fully submerges the audience into the vengeful rage of its protagonist. It's hilarious, disturbing, and blood-drenched, with a razor-sharp gallows humor that slices through nearly every scene, even the goriest ones. Burton has possibly the perfect sensibility for such a delicate balancing act, and as a result the film is witty and vibrant while never flinching away from the bloody physical realities of the violence, which is shown with an at-times nauseating physicality. This emphasis on the brutality of Todd's violence helps to ground the film's fantasy, to keep the flights of song and music rooted in a concrete reality of suffering and sorrow. The result is that the musical numbers are like fantastic dreams, attempts at escape from the morbid reality of a world in which murder does double duty as revenge and good business practices.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

12/27: The Man From the Alamo; California

The Man From the Alamo is a Budd Boetticher Western dating from before the director's more well-known association with actor Randolph Scott. In this film, Glenn Ford plays John Stroud, the unfortunate man chosen by lot to leave the Alamo just before it's overrun, in order to head north and try to save his family, along with the families of several other soldiers, who were being attacked in northern Texas. This gesture gets Stroud branded as a coward by those who don't know his goal, and his stigma is heightened when the Alamo falls to the enemy and everyone left inside is killed. To make matters worse, when Stroud arrives in his home town, he finds that all the families he was sent to protect, including his own, have already been murdered — and not by the Mexican army, he learns, but by unscrupulous Texans posing as Mexicans and hoping to enrich themselves in the melee.

Stroud immediately plans to enact his revenge on these rebels, led by the nasty Jess Wade (Victor Jory), but his reputation as a coward precedes him and makes life difficult, particularly in a town where most of the women's husbands are dead at the Alamo. Boetticher seems especially interested in the line between cowardice and bravery, and the question of which side of the line Stroud's departure from the Alamo should fall on. Stroud is introduced, at the beginning of the film, committing a largely senseless act of bravery by leaping up onto the fort's ramparts in the midst of a firefight, running along the ledge and risking death, simply in order to replace the flag on the fort's ramparts, which had been knocked down by a cannon shot. This is conventional bravery, and certainly the movie version of bravery — risking death unnecessarily, even if the immediate aim of the risk is trivial. This action is implicitly contrasted with Stroud's later decision to leave the fort, which is perceived by all who witness it as a shocking display of cowardice. And yet, in this case Stroud has a definite and useful goal in mind, which is to some extent self-serving (protecting his own family) but also selfless and noble (protecting the families of others). That he risks his own reputation in order to achieve this goal adds an additional element of self-sacrifice to his decision.

This examination of bravery and cowardice plays out within a tautly constructed adventure narrative, which Boetticher tells in just 79 minutes, packing the film with action and just enough character detail to render his hero convincingly. Stroud's reputation as a coward also serves as a metaphor for all manner of prejudices and various signs of "weakness" in the harsh world of the American frontier. If being a coward is just about the worst thing with which a man can be branded, it places him only a few notches down from Mexicans, who earned a status of shame by virtue of being both non-white and members of a nation that was at war with Texas. Thus, Stroud further cements his outsider status by bringing around a young Mexican boy who used to work at his now-destroyed ranch, and who he has more or less adopted as a son. Also low in the pecking order are women, who are considered entirely defenseless and in need of a man, and the crippled, who are unable to engage in traditional "manly" pursuits like fighting in the army.

The film exposes all of these underlying assumptions of the Western in its denouement, in which the coward, the one-armed local doctor John Gage (Chill Wills), and a number of women, must defend a wagon train against Wade's marauding gang. With all the menfolk off fighting the Mexican army, it falls to this motley assortment of supporting players, usually relegated to the sidelines in Hollywood Westerns, to take center stage and fight to protect themselves. Boetticher privileges the sideline characters here, bringing them slowly forward in the narrative. When he first introduces them, they're part of the traditional Western structure, under the protective wing of an army detachment. But as the soldiers and all the other able-bodied men head off from the main plotline, into other stories, Boetticher sticks with the wagon train rather than following the soldiers, and all that's left is the bottom tiers of the Western's de-facto caste system.

This deconstruction of the Western is unexpected in a low-budget oater like this, but Boetticher manages to sneak in a great deal of subtext of this sort within the film's fast-moving framework. It's a solid, economical B-Western with a surprisingly complex moral examination at its core, as well as a subtle querying of the Western's biases and ideological blind spots.

California is director John Farrow's epic ode to the resiliency of the frontier spirit, and especially to the beauty of the eponymous state, whose statehood is the dilemma at the center of this film. Set in the period of the first gold strikes in California, and the ensuing mass migration to the largely unsettled land, the film charts the progression of the territory from a totally lawless frontier, to a speculative land ripe for exploitation, to the cusp of statehood and entry into the "civilized" boundaries of the Union. This civilizing narrative is often at the heart of the classical Hollywood Westerns, which as a body of work are about the tension between the "wild" West and the gradually spreading society of the then-nascent United States. Here, this tension is localized in California, where the twin aims of gold and power conspire to keep the territory uncivilized and free of laws for as long as possible.

When the film starts, John Trumbo (Ray Milland) is an army deserter who agrees to lead a wagon train of farmers west to California in order to escape his past. Along with the farmers, he reluctantly brings aboard the volatile Lily (Barbara Stanwyck), who is spurned by the locals as a woman of ill repute, though the film never makes it clear whether she's earned this reputation or not. But as soon as the wagons set off, the announcement that gold has been struck in California reaches them, and the farmers all immediately abandon the train in a mad scramble west, leaving behind only Trumbo and the Irish farmer Michael Fabian (Barry Fitzgerald). The two eventually make it west, and find the expected gold rush fever, with the town in the tight grip of the tyrannical former slave trader Pharoah Coffin (George Coulouris). As if his name isn't a good enough clue, Coffin is the film's villain, a cartoonishly exaggerated mustache-stroking kind of villain in the grand old tradition, pure evil kitsch. His evil is also shot through with a solid dose of fear and cowardice, especially from his slave-ship past — at one point, a breeze through the trees reminds him of the sound of "naked feet shuffling on the deck."

Once Trumbo and Fabian arrive in this Coffin-controlled town, the film begins leaping frantically forward, constantly shifting style and never quite settling on just what kind of film this is supposed to be. At one point, it's a rollicking gold rush adventure, then a gambling drama, then a chronicle of political manipulations, then an epic shootout. It even tries to be a folksy musical at intervals, though it falls entirely on its face at that — in the song Stanwyck tries to sing herself, she proves a much worse singer than an actress, and a later more tender song is obviously overdubbed. In another scene, the farmers' abandonment of their wagons to flee west is accompanied by a ludicrous chanted song about the lure of gold. Moments like this, and the stirring landscape montage and patriotic anthem that opens the film, are unavoidably cheesy and completely halt the film's pace.

Not that the pace is so carefully modulated otherwise. Rapid shifts in tone and a massive pile-up of plot elements keep the film rocketing from one thing to the next with only sporadic measured moments along the way. The film is only slightly longer than an hour and a half, and its complex narrative seems to demand much more. It only feels like an epic because so much happens, but the major events are often rushed by. Fabian's stint as a politician and subsequent election to represent the town in a statehood caucus is barely a blip in the narrative, though it represents a major turn of events, and it's a shock when, in the next scene, he talks about five weeks going by. Meanwhile, the local saloon changes ownership so many times in the course of ten minutes of screentime that it's dizzying. Farrow simply attempts to cram too much action and too many twists into a film not big enough to support them all, and as a result the uneven pacing leaves a lot to be desired.

If the film largely falters on the large scale, it's much more successful in short bursts, in individual scenes, and in Farrow's careful camerawork. Especially noteworthy is the way he handles space in two matching scenes set at Coffin's palatial hacienda. In the first, Trumbo comes to visit his adversary, and the two have a confrontational conversation, walking around the room as the camera tracks them. Finally, as they walk towards the door with Trumbo getting ready to leave, the camera pans around to catch them in a two-shot, revealing another room off to the side, with Lily standing behind a piano and watching them. Her appearance, as Coffin's fiancee and the object of a fierce love/hate relationship for Trumbo, unsettles the scene's tension and serves as the hidden anchor for the camera throughout the scene. Tucked off to the side, listening in, she's unseen until the very end and her appearance draws attention to the camera's careful movement, which is revealed to have been conspiring (with Coffin) to keep her hidden all through the preceding scene. This scene is mirrored towards the end of the film, when Trumbo and Coffin again have a confrontation in the same room, although this time it's much more violent. Lily is again off to the side in the adjoining room, unseen throughout the scene, as the camera follows the raving mad Coffin, walking around the room with a pistol and muttering to himself. His showdown with the unarmed Trumbo ends when Lily emerges from the other room and shoots Coffin from offscreen; as he falls, the camera pans over to the side, revealing her standing there, just as it had revealed her in the earlier scene.

California excels in small touches like this, in the moments at which the subtlety and dramatic weight of Farrow's direction overcomes the sweeping gestures and grandiose aesthetics of the film as a whole. The film hangs together very awkwardly, so that its individual parts are much more than the sum. Still, it's an enjoyable film that delves into the conflict between civilization and disorder, and even if its grand ambitions fail, it works quite well as a rough-and-ready B-Western.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

12/19: The Philadelphia Story

George Cukor's The Philadelphia Story is an epitome of stylish wit and charm, evincing the same concern with class and life decisions as Cukor's earlier (and much superior) Cary Grant/Katharine Hepburn vehicle Holiday. Hepburn plays Tracy Lord, a society heiress with a long history as a tabloid gossip mainstay, especially in regards to her marriage to and angry divorce from Grant's C.K. Dexter Haven (a brilliant high-class name if ever there was one). The opening scene perfectly captures the antipathy between these two, in a quick and wordless evocation of the end of their marriage: Hepburn breaks Grant's golf club over her knee, and Grant palms her face and shoves her backwards, after first feigning a punch. But when Tracy plans to get remarried, to the nouveau-riche George Kittredge (John Howard), Dexter returns into her life, dragging with him a pair of gossip-rag journalists who he plans to introduce as friends of his.

From then on, the film is a game of appearances and realities, with nothing ever quite what it seems. Dexter is seemingly out for revenge by showing up at the wedding and bringing sleazy journalists with him, but he actually has more altruistic motives in mind. And the journalists, Connor (James Stewart) and Liz (Ruth Hussey), must maintain their facades while gathering information about the Lord family. Meanwhile, Tracy sees right through her ex's ruse immediately, but is forced to accept the journalists as friends anyway, due to a blackmail plot by the tabloid's editor. All this is established with perhaps too much detail, and the first 20 minutes of the film drag ponderously with exposition that brings the plot up to this point. It's only then that the first genuine sparkle appears in the film, as Tracy and her sophisticated young sister Dinah (Virginia Weidler, in one of those annoyingly precocious little kid roles) playact before the befuddled journalists, hoping to present a super-exaggerated portrait of the society lifestyle for their benefit. This scene is hilarious, and the smooth-talking, constantly quipping Hepburn quickly proves a strangely compelling counterpart for the laconic Stewart.

The duo achieves an uneasy rapport almost as soon as they're onscreen together, totally different from Hepburn's already established rapport with Grant as her ex. In Grant, Hepburn has a true onscreen equal, someone with a sharp wit to match hers and an ability to trade barbs back and forth with ease. Stewart, in his best folksy personality, can be witty too, but his conversations with Hepburn aren't so much back-and-forth as give-and-take, up-and-down, going from periods of rapid-fire exchanges to more halting moments of withdrawal and uncertainty. The difference between the two male leads and their complicated connections with Hepburn provides the film's central spark and tension. It's telling that, from the very beginning, the prospective husband George is sidelined in favor of not just one, but two other leads. He's a stuffy cipher, a man who pulled himself up from nothing to be a successful businessman, and who has now totally bought into the status and self-importance of his new class. In contrast, both the impoverished Stewart and the born-rich Grant seem much more natural, relaxed in their skins and not overly concerned with appearances or traditions.

As this précis suggests, Cukor's interest in class is complex and not at all couched in the usual simplistic terms. The Lord family is undoubtedly upper-class, and they accept their privilege with casual ease, while Connor is nearly a pauper, a struggling writer working way beneath his talent just to pay the bills. Connor is understandably resentful of the riches around him at the Lord home, but his resentment cools as he grows to know Tracy better, although their discussions still often have a tinge of class warfare about them. This is especially apparent when Tracy offers Connor the use of a country house for private writing, and he rejects her by saying that the concept of wealthy patronesses has gone out of style. Connor just wants to be his own man, even if it means struggling, and this ultimately is the film's primary message. Both Connor and Dexter are comfortable with who they are, while George and Tracy aren't — Tracy, especially, seems uncertain about what direction to go in her life, or even what kind of person she is. She's repeatedly told, sometimes in insult, sometimes with the best of intentions, that she is a cold, distant, and self-centered goddess, and only Connor seems to see the warmth and intelligence in her.

Cukor deftly juggles this introspective subtext with the romantic interest of the central love triangle (actually complicated into a hexagon by the additional points of George and Liz), and a great deal of humor. The film is at its peak in the scenes between Connor and Tracy, especially a remarkable sequence in which the two of them grow progressively drunker and drunker over the course of a night as they ramble and talk and drink. The scene is a series of back-and-forth movements and gestures, with each of them moving towards each other and then backing off; several times, in the midst of quietly phrased arguments, their faces are close enough to kiss, and then they back away again. Cukor handles this beautifully, subtly increasing the romantic tension in the scene even as the tone of the dialogue largely remains friendly and unsentimental. When they finally kiss, the music soars romantically and then jolts to a halt, as though pausing to breath, and in the silence between kisses Hepburn simply whispers, "Golly." It's a moving, hilarious, wonderful moment, a perfect movie kiss. Without resorting to typical Hollywood grandstanding or manipulation, Cukor simply evokes the emotional depth of that kiss.

The Philadelphia Story abounds in moments like this, the result of Cukor's ability to organically combine witty dialogue, emotionally complicated characters (and performances to draw them out), and the subtle use of formal elements to gently nudge the scene towards its meaning. In this film, Cukor neatly shifts between light humor, low-key drama, and intellectual ruminations on identity, purpose, and the decisions made at crucial junctures in life. The film never quite settles into any of these modes, but it never quite feels disjointed either. Its story flows organically, and best of all, it doesn't rely on stock clichés or conventions. Its complex denouement somewhat defies the logic of Hollywood endings (though it's definitely a happy one), because it arises from the characters and their actions rather than from any clever twist or sop to audience expectations. The film as a whole isn't as dazzlingly fun as Holiday, which dealt with similar themes and ideas, nor is it as rigorous in developing these ideas. But it's still a fine work, and once it gets past the speedbump of the opening 20 minutes, it's very satisfying indeed.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

12/18: Lola

The final film in Fassbinder's BRD Trilogy is Lola, and it is the trilogy's lightest and most comical installment, a colorful and vibrant satire of the capitalist idea of advancing one's self. Although Lola (Barbara Sukowa), an expensive call girl, is the titular role, she steps in and out of the central space in the film, largely ceding the foreground to the two men she's manipulating and seducing: the corrupt contractor Schukert (Mario Adorf) and the seemingly incorruptible city building inspector Von Bohm (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Even when she's in the background, though, Lola is the film's heart and soul, its vivid icon of the post-war struggle for success. Lola is, like the heroines of the other two BRD films, a woman who has been kicked around by life, and responds by making herself hard and doing anything to get what she wants. In this case, what she wants is economic independence, freedom from being a piece of property bartered over by the city's upper class citizens. With this in mind, she sets her sights on the newly arrived Von Bohm, a pillar of respectability who's unaware of her lowly status.

The film's story of love, exploitation, economic scheming, and capitalist corruption is, in its narrative details, almost entirely realistic. And yet Fassbinder makes this story seem like a dazzling fairy tale by bathing the film in gorgeous, multi-colored lights and fragmenting the narrative with dramatic ellipses, fading to an abstract smear of colors in between scenes. One can't possibly talk enough about Fassbinder's use of color in this film. Color was always an integral component in his films, especially in the ones he made following his first exposure to Douglas Sirk, but this is the epitome of Fassbinder's approach to color and light. He arranges a dazzling array of pinks, reds, blues, and greens, making almost every scene a fabulous composition in color first, and anything else only secondarily.

But Fassbinder's use of color is hardly just ornamental, and he makes good use of his bright palette in developing his characters and their worlds. From the very first shot of the film, Lola is associated with the color red, and in most scenes where she appears, she's bathed in red light. Von Bohm, on the other hand, is associated with blue, most clearly in the bright blue of his eyes, which Fassbinder consistently accentuates. Von Bohm's face is often shrouded in darkness, with only a light tightly focused on the area around his eyes, so that they glow and glisten with an ethereal blue light. This tension between the red of passion and Von Bohm's cool blue is finally released when the pair drive home together and then talk outside the car afterwards. Throughout this conversation, Von Bohm's side of the car is filled with blue light, and Lola's side with a soft pink, without rational explanation — Fassbinder lights the film not in terms of realistic light sources, but with the metaphorical logic of dreams, and every nuance of lighting has a meaning. It's telling, then, that when Von Bohm comes closer to Lola to kiss her, he's moving out of the safe blue aura that has surrounded him throughout the film and into the bright red of Lola's world. When they kiss, both of them are illuminated in red. In the scenes after this point, following Lola's rejection of Von Bohm and his subsequent discovery that she's a whore, Fassbinder no longer calls attention to Mueller-Stahl's shining eyes, eliminating the blue aura of respectability that has protected him. Lola's appeal has drawn him away from his orderly world, whether he realizes it or not, and everything that happens to him afterward will be subject to her desires.

The film's stylishness and glamor elevate this otherwise down-to-earth tale into a capitalist fable, a breezily executed metaphor for Germany's "Economic Miracle" and the dehumanizing toll on a society that has begun to place economics before life and happiness. Several characters in the film speak about the distinction between public life and private life, but the film itself is essentially chronicling the suppression and destruction of the private sphere in favor of the public. Lola, certainly, has no private life of her own: her sexuality consists of business transactions, and even her grasping at genuine love with Von Bohm quickly morphs into a cycle of exploitation and manipulation in order to achieve monetary success and security. The film suggests a society in which people's private selves have disappeared, and all that's left is the shallow, money-focused exterior they present as a public face. With capitalism, Fassbinder seems to be saying, there really isn't much more than what meets the eye. There are only occasional and ineffective pockets of resistance to this capitalist barrage, especially in the form of the socialist Esslin (Matthias Fuchs) and, briefly, the jilted Von Bohm, before Lola's seductive charm sets him back on the course of the capitalist lock-step. Even the principled Esslin, a disciple of Bakunin, can eventually be bought out for the right price.

This film is Fassbinder at his witty, delirious best, deftly blending political satire and overwrought melodrama, with a stunning set of performances from some lesser-known lights in the director's stock company. Sukowa, especially, is a revelation in the only starring role Fassbinder gave her; she tears into a juicy performance as the cold but sexy Lola. Her character ranges from woozy sentimentality to joyous singing on stage at the whorehouse to icy manipulation, and in the scene where Von Bohm sees her at the brothel, she breaks into a jaw-dropping striptease, throwing her anguish at her lover's discovery into every violently jerky movement and crack in her voice. Mario Adorf is equally notable in his only role for Fassbinder, burning up the screen as the sleazy but undeniably vibrant contractor Schukert, his energy swallowing up everything around him. It goes without saying that Mueller-Stahl is exceptional as Von Bohm, exuding exactly the quiet strength that the character requires, and stalwart Fassbinder bit player Hark Bohm is cagey and opaque as the city's corrupt mayor.

This is a typically complex film from Fassbinder, in which politics and personal conflicts are inextricably wed together, making "the personal is political" much more than a shallow catch-phrase. The film both opens and closes with a black and white photo of Konrad Adenauer, the post-war first Chancellor of West Germany, and in between is a whole world of private and public dramas happening under the auspices of his administration. For Fassbinder, this is the only way to look at the world, as a web of interpersonal connections interwoven with the necessities of politics and economics, and Lola is a glorious farce that unravels some of these threads.

Monday, December 17, 2007

12/17: Porky In Wackyland; Dough For the Do-Do; Quai des orfèvres

Porky In Wackyland may just be the strangest cartoon to come out of the Warner Brothers studio, and that's really saying something in a catalog filled with strange little films. In this Robert Clampett-helmed production, Porky Pig heads off in a bouncy propeller plane towards the heart of "darkest Africa" (which is of course preceded by "dark Africa" and "darker Africa") in search of the last of the Do-Do birds. He lands in Wackyland ("population 100 nuts and a squirrel") and is almost immediately subjected to a barrage of non-sequiturs and bizarre characters. There's a creature that plays flute by blowing its nose, a strange rabbit dangling in mid-air from a swing that seems to be threaded through its own ears, an angry criminal imprisoned behind a free-floating barred window that he holds in his hands, and a cop with a wheel for legs, who rides up to assault the prisoner. There's also a three-headed monstrosity based on the Three Stooges, with the three heads violently arguing in a squeaky abstract language, which is translated by a long-nosed little creature who runs up to the foreground of the image: "He says his mother was scared by a pawnbroker's sign." Huh? Porky is confronted by all this almost as soon as he arrives, when the lunatic sunrise (the sun is lifted above the horizon by a tower of stacked creatures, with the top one holding it up) signals the start of a new day in Wackyland. This kind of abstract nonsense drives the film, with the same kind of absurdist sense of humor and fluid flow between unrelated images that propelled such Surrealist films as Un Chien Andalou.

His search for the Do-Do eventually leads him to the unusual bird, but it proves to be much more than he bargained on, as the Do-Do attacks him with lunatic glee and skillfully evades capture. The bird breaks every rule of reality, even of cartoon reality. At one point, the Do-Do pulls out a pencil and draws a door in mid-air, which then takes on tactile form. Obviously, the expected next step in a Warner cartoon would be for the bird to open the door and run through, but instead he reaches down and lifts up the bottom edge of the door like a curtain, revealing it as rubbery and malleable. He darts underneath and lets it snap back into place for Porky to crash into it. The Do-Do represents a fracture even in the loose rules of the Looney Tunes cartoons; this is a creature that is entirely illogical and surrealistic even in relation to illogical standards. The Looney Tunes cartoons always flirted with surrealism and other disjunctions of narrative logic, but never more so than in this 'toon, which wantonly breaks all the rules and doesn't bother to create any new ones. Wackyland is a totally free world, a masterfully executed Surrealist landscape in which anything can and does happen.

The remake of Porky In Wackyland, Dough For the Do-Do, was made a decade later in color by Fritz Freleng, and it revisits the crazed environs of Wackyland with only a few essential changes. The switch to color is of course good enough reason for a remake, and none of the black and white Looney Tunes would seemingly benefit so much from added color. In Freleng's version, the bizarre inhabitants of Wackyland are given new life with bright color schemes, though the character designs are basically the same as in Clampett's original film, since much of the original animation is reused and colorized. Only Porky looks different, taking into account the evolution of his character design in the years between the two cartoons. The plot is more or less the same, too. Freleng's version adds a few new jokes — like a "rubber band" that goes marching by, and a brick with a parachute that drops a second brick hidden inside it — and makes a few changes to the ending, but many other scenes are shot-for-shot remakes of the Clampett film. Nevertheless, the first scenes in Wackyland don't flow as well as they do in Clampett's original, in which there was a real sense of the camera panning with Porky's stunned gaze across this awe-inspiring landscape. Here, the reused footage makes the edits necessarily a bit more abrupt, and the unity of space between Porky and the wacky world he's experiencing is destroyed.

One other thing that Freleng changes is even more substantial. His later version of Wackyland noticeably incorporates the visual influence of Salvador Dali, so that Wackyland begins to look like a Surrealist painting. The opening titles provide a clue right away, with Dali's trademark melting clocks draped over a tree on the title card. This influence is woven into the film's landscape, as well, with Dali's crutches and warped surfaces appearing strewn across the screen. At one point, where in Clampett's film the Do-Do ran up a curved tree and then along the underside of its branch, in this new 'toon the bird runs up a curved surface supported by a Daliesque crutch. On one level, this art-referencing is a fun game, and it was probably many kids' first exposure to Surrealist imagery, even if it's pop Surrealism filtered through the Warner aesthetic. But in a deeper way, this bastardized Surrealist Wackyland is a disappointment in comparison to the original. Clampett's Wackyland was a genuinely original creation, and a true Surrealist masterpiece even if he wasn't aiming for Surrealism (and I'm by no means sure how aware the 30s Warner crew were of external art movements). By bolstering Clampett's vision with a kind of premade Surrealism imported from Dali, Freleng dilutes the ingenuity and visual brilliance of the original short, reducing it to a clever referential game rather than a truly original work invented out of whole cloth. Clampett's film is a cartoon masterpiece; Freleng's is something less, a clever pastiche, still enjoyable but not as jaw-droppingly inventive as its predecessor.

Henri-Georges Clouzot's Quai des orfèvres is ostensibly a detective story and a murder mystery, but it's not a very good one. At least, not on the terms by which such mysteries are usually judged. Thankfully, the film has a lot more to offer besides mystery. Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair) is a nightclub singer with a jealous pianist husband, Maurice (Bernard Blier), who she loves and is faithful to despite his periodic jealous rages and his constant suspicion (not to mention his general frumpiness, a stark contrast to her luscious pin-up beauty). Jenny is also ambitious, though, and she accepts the attentions of the lascivious movie mogul Brignon (Charles Dullin). She naïvely believes that she can attain fame without giving in to the producer's notorious penchant for bedding his stars. Obviously, things go badly awry, and on the night Brignon turns up dead, both Jenny and the jealous Maurice have been at Brignon's home at different times, with flimsy but convoluted alibis to cover up their activities. Their mutual friend Dora (Simone Renant) has also been at the house, helping Jenny by erasing fingerprints and retrieving a piece of clothing left behind. All three naturally become suspects in the murder as the plot unravels, and the dogged police detective Antoine (Louis Jouvet) trails the clues and slowly undoes their alibis.

The problem with this scenario, as a detective story, is that Clouzot makes no attempt to maintain any sort of traditional suspense or mystery in the film's construction. The first forty minutes of the film are concerned entirely with the three prime suspects, their relationships, and the world of the entertainment industry that they belong to and the small Paris clubs they perform at. Clouzot's interest in this milieu is almost anthropological, developing an entire bustling world of singers, dancers, and oddball performers, like a troupe of gymnastic dogs. An early scene traces the development of Jenny's signature song, with a fluid montage that shows her performing the song in informal practice, club auditions, an on-stage rehearsal, and finally, glamorously dolled up, belting out the number as she shakes her hips before a live audience. Just as importantly, Clouzot is interested in the troubled but genuinely loving domestic relationship between Jenny and Maurice. Maurice is a balding, stocky little loser, sloppy-looking with his perpetually wrinkled clothes and his gloomy stare. He's a miserable man who somehow earned the love of a vivacious, sexy woman, and his knowledge that he's with a woman far above his level has seemingly only made him more miserable. He's consumed by jealousy, and even the most innocent chatter with the old men around the club inflames his rage. Why Jenny ever fell in love with this dopey nothing of a guy is a mystery bigger than anything in the film's main plotline, but then love is always a mystery anyway, so Clouzot gets away with the incongruity. In any case, Jenny is unrelentingly faithful and loving, though she's not above a little innocent flirtation.

The film's focus on Jenny and Maurice (and, tangentially, the perpetual third wheel Dora) encompasses the night of the killing as well, and by the time detective Antoine shows up, the audience is already pretty sure who killed the old guy (although, as everyone knows in mysteries, if you don't see it done on screen, it didn't happen the way you think). Antoine's attempts to uncover the truth of that night are therefore rather perfunctory, from the audience's point of view — we've already seen much of what happened, we know exactly the weak points in each character's alibis, and we know the steps Antoine will have to take to uncover their lies. It's only a question of whether he'll figure it out, and how quickly. To make matters worse, Clouzot bails everyone out with a final-moment revelation that shifts the blame entirely off the central trio to a character so far on the plot's periphery that he was barely in the film prior to that point. It's the most elementary of mystery plotting blunders, the third act revelation that makes everything that came before it entirely irrelevant.

Except that in this case, it's not a blunder. Clouzot wants to enforce the point that everything happening in this film is irrelevant. In many ways, his interest in the procedures of Antoine's investigation evinces the same anthropological focus on process that he dedicated to his exploration of the music halls. Justice as pursued by Antoine is a slippery and elusive prey, and while he's not exactly inept, he's certainly lazy, and eager to get back to his half-breed son, who he brought back from the African colonies with him. He pursues clues halfheartedly, and mostly just takes the ones that leap out in front of him. He cheerfully admits that his own raincoat was stolen from him right in the police station, with no sign of the thief, and yet once he gets the idea that Maurice killed Brignon, he latches onto the hapless man with a pitbull-like tenacity. If Clouzot's probing into the world of entertainment is largely brimming with light and vigor — especially the joyousness of Jenny's kitschy but sensual performances — his vision of the law and civil institutions is much darker. Antoine is seen as something of a necessary evil in the film. He's not a bad guy, in the same way that the jealous Maurice isn't such a bad guy, but the film suggests that the good and innocent can have as much to fear from the law as the wicked. Coming on the heels of World War II and the French experience of Nazi "law and order," this point was especially salient. The deus ex machina ending takes some of the heat off Antoine, allowing for a "happy" resolution, but one senses that in a more realistic film, Maurice would've been sent to his death for a crime he didn't commit.

The ending does prevent the film from being completely satisfying, as do a couple of earlier scenes when the script descends into exposition through dialogue — especially a lengthy scene where Antoine expounds on his whole past to an underling, for seemingly no more reason than to fill the audience in on his back story. Thankfully, scenes like this are rare, and Clouzot mostly allows the accumulation of details and the nuances of the actors' performances to complete the picture of these characters and their worlds. It's a film that adds up to much more than the sum of its parts, as Clouzot balances his forays into the police procedural and the Parisian music hall scene, the relationship between Maurice and Jenny, and the film's overarching questions about justice, the law, love, and the structure of society. Clouzot, known for his darkness and cynicism, here allows those elements of his philosophy to coexist with light, music, and love, and the interactions between the two opposing forces provide the film's dramatic tension in the absence of a truly satisfying thriller story.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

12/16: Bringing Up Baby; Shadows and Fog; Salut les Cubains

Bringing Up Baby is a classic of the screwball comedy genre, and it definitely deserves its acclaim. Cary Grant plays a stuffy paleontologist whose life's work is the assembly and study of a brontosaurus skeleton, which has reached a pivotal moment with the arrival of one last bone to complete the fossil record. Katharine Hepburn is his utter opposite, a frivolous and wanton woman who encounters him by chance on a golf course and almost immediately makes it her mission to get Grant to love her. The problem is, seemingly her only method of showing her interest is to aggravate, annoy, and assault the object of her affection, doing everything she can merely to keep him around her. Grant, meanwhile, only wants to get back to his fiancée and his work — though maybe not quite as badly as he says he does, since his fiancée (Virginia Walker), who's also his assistant, has already made it clear that she views their upcoming marriage primarily as a way to support Grant's career, rather than as a matter of love or attraction.

Hepburn's character, in contrast, is pure passion and energy, a whirlwind of manic chatter and even crazier behavior. It's an entirely sexist portrayal of an airhead who can barely stand on her own two feet, let alone keep a single thought in her head for longer than a minute. And her behavior towards Grant is borderline cruel and nasty when it's not just absentmindedly careless. So it's to the film's credit that it's still hysterically funny, and I was laughing even when my sympathy for Grant's predicament threatened to overwhelm the humor. The escalating rotten situation that Grant finds himself embroiled in involves a tame leopard named Baby, a dog named George with a strange predilection for burying boots (and, as it turns out, dinosaur bones too), a judgmental old society matron with a million dollars to donate, a stolen car, and a hilarious climax at a prison where virtually the entire cast eventually winds up behind bars. Throughout all this, the film maintains a perilous balance between humor and cruelty, and the chaotic vivacity of Hepburn's performance goes a long way towards preventing her character from becoming totally unlikable. It's telling that the one moment when my antipathy towards her actions overcame me was the scene where she lets her defenses slip, weeping at Grant's rejection. In light of the total selfish manipulations of her character throughout the film, these tears and the Vaseline-lensed melodramatic close-up that accompanies them are totally unearned, like just one more manipulative trick to keep Grant from pushing her away. But as long as she maintains her facade of disarming cheerfulness and bravado, the film is propelled along by the sheer force of her will — which is exactly how she aims to capture Grant's love, by sheer force of will.

The film's madcap pacing is further heightened by its soundtrack. Hawks frequently allows his actors to pile up on top of each other in shouting out their lines, so that many scenes become wild shouting matches between Hepburn, Grant, and whoever else happens to be around, with multiple quips and jokes hidden in the barrage of overlapping dialogue. This approach reaches its pinnacle in the scene where Hepburn's rich aunt (May Robson) arrives at Hepburn's country home, her dog George in tow and yapping wildly. The scene is played out with George's barking competing for attention with the yelling of the two women, while Grant sits on the stairs with his hands over his ears, looking glum. It's not difficult to sympathize with him. The film's constant up-tempo pace and layered soundtrack can be wearying at any great length, and by that point in the film, surely even the most tenacious of viewers would have to feel a bit exhausted. But even if things occasionally go a bit too far over the top, the bulk of the film is perfectly pitched in its lunatic accumulation of outlandish incidents, and the climactic prison sequence is a masterpiece of verbal comedy. Hepburn especially is at her comic best here, and her sparring with the hapless local police chief prefigures the best of the Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd rivalry in its word games and fast-talking trickery.

The only major flaw in the film's construction is Grant's sudden final-moment realization that he "loves" Hepburn, and the ensuing wide-scale destruction of the closing minutes, in which his beloved brontosaurus, representing four years of hard work, is devastated by the newly discovered love of his life. Not only is Grant's love for this willfully anarchic woman totally sudden and unsupported by anything that happened in the film previously, but his willingness to dump a lifetime of intellectual endeavor down the drain doesn't seem like the sort of thing a film should be applauding. The scene is played for laughs, like all of the petty cruelties and accidental mishaps that Hepburn rains on poor Grant throughout the film, but the magnitude of the disaster here is way too big to laugh about. Hepburn's continued nonchalance in the face of this tragedy for her supposed love finally drives home just how selfish her character is, and one gets the sense that in a different film she could blunder into pressing a button to launch a nuclear weapon, and shrug it off with a similarly mild "oops." It's hard to tell if Hawks intended an audience that laughed all through the film to continue laughing at this mishap, or if he wants us to wake up and realize we've been laughing at cruelty and disaster.

Either way, even if the ending rings a bit false and there are periodic points of annoyance, the rest of the film is a marvel of comedic lunacy. Hepburn is particularly brilliant in an unenviable role, bringing a brash energy to a character who's totally focused on herself to the complete detriment of those around her. Grant gets less meat as the straight man (well, not entirely, he does get that justly famous scene where he dons a frilly robe and screams, "I just went gay all of a sudden!"), but his dry straight-faced humor provides a nice contrast to Hepburn's machine-gunning delivery. They're a great comic pairing, and this is a fine example of the over-the-top screwball genre.

Shadows and Fog stands out as an oddball experiment even in the context of the wide-ranging career of Woody Allen, who has always been willing to shift stylistic modes even as his sharp wit and clever dialogue remain constant. Allen has also always been a very referential filmmaker, drawing on his influences with equal measures of parody and respect. But never before has he drawn from such a wide range of influences, and integrated them so thoroughly, as in this multi-layered and wonderful film. The film opens with two obvious artistic forebears playing off each other. The first is the specter of German expressionism, especially the films of Murnau and Lang — the film's title is entirely appropriate for the moody ambiance of the black-and-white cinematography, which consistently recalls both the German expressionists and the American films noir they inspired. In the first scene, a man walks along a shadowy street, lights a cigarette, and then is strangled to death by a plodding killer who moves and looks like the bald-headed vampire from Murnau's classic Nosferatu. Within moments of this, the film's second major touchstone appears in the form of a scene where Woody's character, the nebbishy clerk Kleinman, is awakened in the middle of the night by a mysterious vigilante mob, and roped into a "plan" to capture the killer. Kleinman is turned loose on the streets, but his compatriots disappear without ever telling him what the plan is or his place in it. The overused adjective "Kafkaesque" immediately springs to mind, perhaps correctly for once.

This collision of Kafka and Murnau in the opening minutes is an apt starting point for a film that delves into the philosophical ramifications of its scenario rather than following through on the actual narrative. In fact, the plot is, after this initial premise, surprisingly thin, and Woody takes great pains to never explain anything too thoroughly. The film is set in no particular place, though its themes of persecution, late-night arrests, and competing vigilante gangs are echoes of Nazi Germany. This is especially apparent when Kleinman witnesses an old Jewish family being arrested as suspects in the murder, for the sole reason that they are "undesirables." When he goes to protest to the police commissioner, he's told not to worry, that it's only the most "orthodox elements" being taken in, and that he can rest easy for his own sake. This is the atmosphere of a pre-Holocaust German city, an uneasy mood of impending doom and only the first slow stirrings of the assault on "undesirables." But the film mainly stays away from a specific evocation of Nazi atrocities, instead rendering the mood as a more general anxiety. Clearly, this anonymous fog-shrouded urban space is meant to be a metaphorical Ur-City, and Kleinman wanders through it in a daze, melting in and out of the fog and encountering a bevy of strange and (mostly) threatening characters.

Kleinman is an ideal Kafka protagonist, a minor wheel in a bureaucratic machine who's thrust into strange circumstances with no explanation, and yet he continues to insist on logical answers to his puzzled inquiries. As he wanders around the city, trying to figure out his place in the plot, he's repeatedly asked if he believes in God, and gives the stock Woody answer that he wishes he could, but he can't make that leap of faith. This is, ultimately, the film's basic theme: the quest for meaning in a world shrouded in darkness. It's an obvious metaphor, but one that's thankfully not hammered home too forcefully; the film lets this idea drift on the periphery like a stray wisp of fog, and the characters' meanderings allow them plenty of time to reflect on their lives. Kleinman is joined, eventually, by a runaway circus sword swallower (Mia Farrow) who's unhappy with her self-absorbed clown boyfriend (John Malkovich, in a role that refers to Ingmar Bergman's Sawdust and Tinsel). He also runs across a doctor (Donald Pleasence) who's convinced he can understand the human mind by dissecting it; a group of prostitutes at a brothel advocating a life of in-the-moment enjoyment (played with vigor and charm by Lily Tomlin, Jodie Foster, and Kathy Bates); and a serious young student (John Cusack) who is pondering his own mortality and purpose by visiting the whorehouse every night. It's to Allen's credit that this star-studded roster of cameos never seems gratuitous or takes the audience out of the film, though Allen also purposefully veers between moody philosophical sections and more comedic scenes. And there's a great deal to find funny here, despite the gloom and heavy cinematic and literary references that abound in the film. Woody's usual schtick is hilarious as ever, and he has plenty of great self-deprecating lines, as well as some quick-witted patter with Farrow, who as always is a dependable sounding board for Woody's humor.

Shadows and Fog is a great return to form for Allen after the somewhat lackluster Alice, though I'm aware that I'm in a tiny minority with that opinion. This film does return again to Woody's fascination with magic and illusion, with the ending taking place at the circus and involving a magician's conjurings. The magical element works beautifully here, in contrast to Alice, because of the way it unexpectedly resonates with some of the film's themes, and especially the idea that the artist is an important figure for providing diversion from the uglier aspects of life. Woody's film is structured with this principle in mind, balancing the weightier ideas with buoyant comedy, and the brothel provides a similar oasis of light and warmth in the midst of all the darkness and nastiness of the city streets. Appropriately, those are the twin poles of pleasure and salvation in Woody's world, art and sex. These concepts are offered as a contrast to religion, which provides at best a false comfort and at worst winds up exploiting its believers, as seen when Kleinman enters a church and finds a priest and a policeman collaborating on a list of local residents, who are presumably going to be rounded up as "undesirables." This is a fantastic one-shot from Woody, totally unlike anything else in his filmography even as it explores some of his characteristic themes and features his usual nebbish personality at its center.

In 1963, four years after Castro took power in Cuba, Agnès Varda visited the country and returned to France with over 1800 photos, which she both exhibited in Paris and edited into the fantastic essay-film Salut les Cubains. The result is a sympathetic portrait of post-revolution Cuba that blends together the political aspects of the country's new socialist system with the enduring cultural stew of vibrant music and dance that have characterized the country and its people throughout all kinds of political upheavals. Using entirely still photos, accompanied by a joint voiceover by Varda and actor Michel Piccoli, the film presents a very rosy image of Castro's Cuba as a socialist idyll, discussing in turn the agricultural reforms, the necessity of protection against counter-revolutionaries, the mass education of peasants by volunteer student-teachers, and the cultural programs put in place by the new socialist state.

It's this latter aspect of Cuba that seems to most interest Varda, and she dedicates the bulk of the film to explorations of Cuba's painting, sculpture, and especially its music and dance. The whole film is underpinned by energetic Afro-Cuban rhythms and rumba music, and the most expressive sequences are a few "musical numbers" in which the rapidly edited photos give the impression of people fluidly dancing and moving. The effect is enthralling, like strobing images of a dance in motion, rhythmically cut to match the insistent beats of the music. These bursts of "movement" provide a visual contrast to the film's more static scenes, when Varda slows down the editing rhythm to keep a single striking photo on screen for a longer period, as she does for the wall painting of Castro with one eye scarred over with bullet holes. These musical scenes convey a sense of genuine respect and love for Cuban culture and its different forms of music, and the joy of the people involved comes across even in stills. The film's most interesting aspect is Varda's discussion of the different musical styles in Cuba, and their origination in influences from Spain, Africa, and France.

The film's glorification of Cuban socialism hasn't held up as well, though it's perhaps understandable why 60s intellectuals held this kind of view of the country's transformation. If not for the glorious celebration of Cuban music and the fascinating formal play with the photomontage essay, this film could be easily dismissed as a dated piece of period propaganda, a time capsule of an era when Castro seemed to offer a kinder, gentler form of socialism that went further than the Soviets in truly realizing Marxist ideals. Certainly, Varda seemed to believe in Castro and his new Cuba, but she is too intelligent a director to fall into the trap of mere propagandizing. Her film goes beyond its pro-Castro message to a celebration of an entire cultural moment and the people and artistic expressions that arose from it.

Friday, December 14, 2007

12/14: Six Looney Tunes cartoons

Bob Clampett's Draftee Daffy starts off as just another World War II patriotic cartoon, with Daffy reading the newspaper and cheerfully recounting the latest American military victories, launching into an elaborate song and dance routine extolling the virtues of the US. Watching it today, this segment can probably only elicit a groan, though Daffy gets some good lines in, because even the best-made propaganda is ultimately a little boring. But then Daffy gets a call from the draft board, and a man comes to deliver his draft notice, and there ensues a wild and frenetic chase as Daffy does anything possible (and quite a few impossible things too) to escape service. Somewhere in there, inevitably, a sneaky little thought occurs: Daffy's a hypocrite! In its unobtrusive way, this short mocks the hypocrisy and faux-patriotism of those who are all for war just as long as it's an abstract concept happening somewhere far away, and in that sense it remains startlingly relevant now.

More importantly, once the action gets moving, it's a dazzlingly fun cartoon, and a perfect showcase for Clampett's tremendous animation skills. The chase scene was a dependable standby of all the Warner animators, and Clampett hits all the usual points here, as always riffing on some basic plotlines and gags. The delayed reaction, the chaser who follows his prey through even the most elaborate traps and escape routes, the bomb that gets casually handed back to the one who lit it: these constantly recycled plot elements serve as the skeletal basis for Clampett's rubbery, fluid motion animation, in which Daffy stretches and contorts himself into pretzels with every movement. Daffy, with his wackiness and exaggerated character, is a perfect fit for Clampett's rubberized sense of movement, and a chase film is exactly the right form for this union of the director with his perfect character.

I Haven't Got a Hat, directed by WB mainstay Isadore "Fritz" Freleng, is mainly notable for being the first cartoon to feature Porky Pig, who would shortly after become the studio's major star (following on after more generic earlier characters like Bosko and Buddy). At this early point, though, Porky doesn't look much like he would later on, and he doesn't have much to do either, although his characteristic stutter was already in place. The film is basically a showcase for the introduction of a whole cast of new characters, of whom only Porky would ultimately stick around for very long. Among this crew was also the mischievous cat Beans, the stuck-up Oliver Owl, a pair of playful dogs named Ham and Ex, and a shy girl kitten. All these characters are in a school, supervised by a cow schoolmarm, and putting on a series of performances for the benefit of their classmates. It's a setup that gives each character the opportunity to step up and introduce themselves, ostensibly to the class, but actually to cartoon audiences of the time, by giving a performance. The Looney Tunes cartoons of the time didn't have much in the way of memorable recurring characters, and these new creations each get their moment in the spotlight here for a try at enduring fame.

The problem is that the short is very light on gags. Ironically, though Porky would be the only one of these characters to last beyond a few cartoons, his part here is by far the weakest. Porky's introduction is just one lengthy joke about his stuttering, which goes on for so long that eventually the class chases him offstage by summoning a pack of dogs to attack him — presumably the audience would've been ready to kick him off much earlier. Later, the WB cartoonists would realize that Porky's stutter, though it defines his personality and to some extent endears him to audiences, is best when it's not the focus of the jokes but a simple accepted fact of the character's being. In later Porky shorts, his stuttering could be funny — especially when it resulted in fun streams of fractured wordplay — but it was rarely placed at center stage in the narrative the way it is here. Little Kitty fares just a little better, shyly reciting "Mary Had a Little Lamb" with exasperated prompting from her teacher on the sidelines — still basically a one-gag show, but at least it's a mildly funnier gag. Finally, there's some interplay between the piano-playing owl and Beans, who's set up here as a trickster character much like Bugs would later become. This is the short's best sequence, a small taste of the madcap insanity that would soon mostly push aside the song-and-dance routines and dominate the Warner cartoons for the next 30 years. Otherwise, this is a relatively undistinguished early effort from the studio, more notable as a historical landmark than a good cartoon in its own right.

Porky Pig's Feat is an absolute work of genius, there's simply no denying it. A pure comic masterpiece, it's packed with so many jokes and wonderful small moments that it's almost impossible to grasp everything that's going on without watching it several times. Porky and Daffy's expensive stay at a plush hotel that they can't pay for triggers a lunatic barrage of rapid-fire gags as the duo attempts to flee from the nigh-unstoppable hotel manager. There's a joke every second, and director Frank Tashlin has the visual panache to milk every one of these jokes for all they're worth. In one scene, Porky and Daffy send the manager tumbling down a massive spiral staircase, and his yells of pain come echoing up to them (at one point, the voice actor hilariously mixes in a recitation of the vowels with the yelps). When the pair looks over the edge, Tashlin shows each of their faces in turn, with a reflection of the falling hotel manager visible in their eyes, and immediately after he inserts another visual joke, a shot of the staircase as a spiral heading down seemingly to infinity — but when Daffy insults him, the manager is back at the top of the stairs like a rocket. Tashlin also plays with mirroring in another scene, when a defiant Daffy is glimpsed sticking out his tongue in a reflection from the manager's monocle.

The cartoon is crammed with these kinds of surprising moments, displaying a keen attention to detail and a way of thinking about scenes, even in cartoons, in terms of the camera's eye. When the manager, insulted by Daffy, prepares to slap the duck, Tashlin pans away to Porky, who's looking on in fascinated fear, and only when the offscreen slap is over, panning back to show Daffy with a white hand print across his face. This kind of moment stands out because of its innovative use of self-consciously "cinematic" techniques in cartoons, but Tashlin's images could be equally striking in terms of pure visual humor. When Daffy accosts the manager, he squashes their faces together and burrows in until the man's face is twisted in on itself, whereupon Daffy turns to the camera and points, telling everyone to look at the new Dick Tracy character, Pruneface (who, indeed, had been introduced in Chester Gould's strip the year before). Towards the end of the film, in an even more metatextual moment, Porky and Daffy discuss Bugs Bunny, saying that they once saw him make a very daring and tricky escape in "a Leon Schlesinger cartoon."

This short is packed with these kinds of multi-layered gags, enhanced by the fluid visuals of Tashlin's expressive animation style. His Daffy, in particular, is brilliantly realized and acted here, as in the opening scene where he loses a dice game and slinks away, every inch of his body telegraphing his depression. His stooped shoulders, dragging feet, and head drooped practically to the ground give his walk exactly the feel it should have, and he's equally expressive when jolted into action for the rest of the cartoon. This is a real joy of a film — I've watched it over and over again tonight, probably five times already, and it's a riot every time.

Plane Daffy is another WW2 short, and director Frank Tashlin makes it one the classics of the era, opening it with a tribute to the Hollywood flying pictures, especially Howard Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings. The opening shot is a fog-shrouded view of the flyers' airbase that evokes Hawks' lonely aviation outpost in the South American jungle, although in this case it's a birdhouse, and the flyers are all pigeons. And, of course, one duck too. That would be Daffy, who takes on a dangerous mission when all the other "pilots" are seduced and waylaid by the Nazi spy Hatta Mari, who's so dangerously sexy that even a poster of her, shown to the troops, sways and sashays seductively so that her hips shake from side to side. Daffy can resist, he says, because he's "a woman-hater, she won't get to first base, this Hatta Mari tomater!" Of course, it doesn't work out that way, and the film gives way to one of those manic and logic-defying chase sequences that so define Looney Tunes cartoons.

Tashlin structures the film in an interesting way, though, so that the crazed release of this chase serves as a counterpoint to the comparatively staid and serious first half of the film. For the first few minutes, the cartoon is set up like a conventional flying ace film (excepting the replacement of the pilots with pigeons, of course), with the birds worrying about their missing friend and chain-smoking until mounds of cigarette butts pile up in the headquarters. A narrator provides a grim voiceover, the seriousness of his narration only undercut by the fact that he's speaking in rhyme, combining a fairy tale sensibility with the macho attitude of the flying picture genre. Once Daffy enters the scene, the mood is shattered, and the foggy ambiance of the birdhouse headquarters gives way to a wacky and surrealist chase as Hatta Mari attempts to extract military secrets from the unwilling Daffy. The chase itself is a masterpiece of warping space: the space seems to entirely change from one shot to the next, with Daffy's motion keying the transition from one space to the next. He opens a door, finds Matta Hari right behind it, darts towards the bottom of the frame and suddenly there's a staircase right there for him to leap down (and of course Matta Hari will somehow be waiting at the bottom as soon as he gets there). And there's an immortal line when the sexy spy chases Daffy into a refrigerator, and he pops his head back out to exclaim, "What do you know? The little light stays on!" This kind of absurdist digression isn't just a fun aside, but the very essence of the cartoon's method, although the equally absurd treatment of spatial logistics in the chase is perhaps a more subtle touch. In fact, the film's whole second half might be thought of as an absurdist detour from the genre pastiche of the beginning, going from the moody Only Angels Have Wings to the wackiness of a screwball comedy (hey, much like Hawks himself). Wackiness is built into the film's DNA, its very structure, which is what makes it such a classic of insanity.

I Got Plenty of Mutton is a Frank Tashlin-directed one-shot, featuring a starving Depression-era wolf who's so desperate for food that he attempts to trick a deadly ram who's guarding a flock of sheep. This wolf, like so many of the supposedly predatory animals in these cartoons, is a dumb and hapless creature, not unlike the later Wile E. Coyote, who was based on this kind of one-shot wolf character. Like Wile, this wolf is a sad and sympathetic character, driven by sheer desperation and starvation, an outgrowth of the Depression and wartime rationing and shortages. He's introduced with a classic Depression-era gag, the "meal" that consists of just a single pea, eaten with a knife and fork in small pieces to prolong the pleasure of eating it.

His attempts to outwit the sheep's guardian ram are similarly pathetic, and he quickly turns to that tried-and-true Warner device, dressing in drag. It's interesting how often various characters resort to this trick in these cartoons, and not only Bugs Bunny. On one level, it's an indication of a fatal weakness in the male personality: again and again in these cartoons, otherwise stolid and powerful male characters are undone by the temptations of women (or other men disguised as women). The ram who's so fearsome when the wolf first shows up is transformed into a lecherous Romeo, steadfastly pursuing his new love. It's a typical irony, though, that his romantic pursuit is so single-minded that the wolf is just as thoroughly kept away from the sheep, unable to escape the advances of the ram, who woos his love with a whispery French accent, punctuated by a loud "BAHHHH!" The ending adds a new and bizarre twist to this loving chase: when the frustrated wolf finally reveals himself, the ram simply shrugs and takes up the chase anew. The ram, apparently, has decided that he just wants some love, and it doesn't matter what species or sex the object of his affection might be.

In the handful of Tashlin cartoons I've watched so far, it seems typical that the narrative structure ranges far and wide and is structured around these kinds of surprising pivot points, which periodically swing the story into totally unexpected places. The sad and hungry wolf of the cartoon's first few minutes is quickly forgotten after his first encounter with the ram, and the story then becomes a question of how he'll manage to outwit his adversary. Then the story shifts gears again, becoming a chase between an amorous character and the unwitting object of his desire; the unexpected ending provides yet another narrative shift, towards a new story that couldn't have been guessed from anything that preceded it. And all this in a cartoon that lasts less than 8 minutes. Tashlin never provides a solid narrative ground, allowing the characters and their interactions to drive the storytelling. The result is a kind of mini-epic that feels a lot longer than it is, even as its pace remains perfectly calibrated. It simply packs in so much detail and so many different ideas into its compact running time, and it's endlessly fun to take this kind of roller-coaster ride with a master director like Tashlin.

The Stupid Cupid, in comparison to the aforementioned cartoons, is a mild-mannered effort from Frank Tashlin, though it's still charming and fun in its own quieter way. The short stars Elmer Fudd as a wayward Cupid, who's spurned by Daffy because the duck is already (unhappily) married with a line of kids so long that the pictures of them fill up a photo album with an extra accordion fold tailing off with still more Daffy Juniors. Once again, we're back to women as the undoing of men in a Looney Tunes cartoon, and Daffy, having learned his lesson the first time, wants no more arrows. But Cupid Fudd takes this rejection to heart, and skewers the unlucky duck with a mega-arrow that makes him fall in love, inappropriately but hilariously, with a chicken. He consequently falls afoul (you thought I was going to make a fowl joke, didn't you?) of a rooster, and the requisite chase ensues, punctuated with alternating violence and romance.

This cartoon lacks some of the flair of other Tash-helmed 'toons, which means that its jokes, while funny as ever, lack some of the extra pop of the camera-play in Porky Pig's Feat or the radical spatial restructuring of Plane Daffy. It's indicative of the extraordinarily high level of quality in the Warner shorts, and the amount of structural and formal play in their construction, that a hilarious and enjoyable cartoon like this can fall into the mid-level of their output simply for lacking those additional levels of meaning and sophistication. Still, the scene towards the end, where Daffy worms his way into the middle of a kiss between the rooster and the hen, has to be one of the most uproarious ménage a trios scenes in cartoon history. Saying this is only an average Warner cartoon isn't too much of an insult; saying it's an only an average Tashlin cartoon is even less of one.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

12/13: The Brood

David Cronenberg has made a great number of disturbing films in his career, but perhaps none more viscerally affecting than The Brood, a horror film that aims not so much to scare you as to turn you inside-out, to make you squirm and recoil in disgust. In most of Cronenberg's films, he aims to take internal mental and emotional processes and give them an external physicality, a presence in the world to match their invisible importance in shaping the individual's psyche. The Brood is a film of tremendous physical impact. Its climactic horror scenes elicit none of the jumpy, jittery scares that most horror films resort to in order to provoke reactions, but Cronenberg's horror is no less physical, no less manipulative. It's a creeping, crawling psychological horror, enhanced by the fact that he keeps his little beasties off-screen for so much of the film, and when they finally appear, their awkwardness only accentuates their basic wrongness.

The monsters in question are the mentally generated spawn of Nola, who's played by Samantha Eggar, in a jaw-dropping performance that vacillates from vulnerability to utter creepiness, with a third act transformation that reminds me of Ashley Judd's recent turn in Bug. Nola is being counseled by the controversial psychologist Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), who believes that negative emotions can be channeled out of the body and manifest themselves in physical form. As it turns out, he's right, and Nola's anger grows into a brood of vicious "children" who respond to the vagaries of her mood by turning on the people she's angry with and killing them. So, basically, it's a horror film about PMS. And in some ways, it's also a viciously misogynistic portrait of motherhood and the parasitic relationship between mother and child. The film reflects a man's fear and distrust of feminine bodily processes and the uniquely privileged mother/child relationship, which is here warped into a nightmarish mockery. The horrors of childbirth, in particular, are explored in brutal detail in the final sequence, which I won't "spoil" for anyone who hasn't seen the film yet — suffice to say, it's one of the most bracing and stomach-turning scenes in cinema. In fact, Cronenberg admits that the film was directly inspired by a rather nasty divorce battle with his ex-wife, and consequently it's a film about the scars, mental and physical, imparted on us by our families and loved ones. Nola was physically beaten by her own mother as a child, and now that she's a mother herself, the suppressed rage bubbles over into her own new family.

It's a fascinating film, precisely because it couches Cronenberg's usual obsession with bodily transformation and the externalization of emotions in a much more straightforward horror context that he would create in his later films. Of course, all of Cronenberg's films might, to one degree or another, be called horror films, but few of them are rigorously scary. Most of his films are too pensive, too withdrawn from the horror of the situations or the characters involved, to really generate the frisson of sympathetic fear that good horror demands from its viewers. Perhaps because this film is so personal, and Cronenberg presumably identifies more closely than usual with its everyman hero, The Brood truly lives up to its billing as a horror flick. The film builds up a slow-burning terror that, strangely, has little to do with the monsters themselves or their actual violent actions. The creatures, though creepy in an alien sort of way, are small and child-like, and can also look faintly ridiculous bundled up in bulky children's coats with thick mittens, waddling around like overstuffed little penguins with hideous faces. So they're not scary in the way that, say, Freddy Krueger is scary. That is, they're not scary just because they're physically intimidating, or because they pose such a horrible threat — though they do rack up quite the body count for such little beasts. The terror in the film arises more from the very idea of these creatures, the knowledge that they are the external representation of ugly human feelings, that they are essentially birthed from the mind. They evoke a squirmy, almost metaphysical dread, the sense that they're somehow filthy, like thoughts that should never be aired so publicly.

This kind of uncomfortable feeling is a typical component in virtually all of Cronenberg's work. His films are not only images of people in the process of externalizing their inner worlds; he wants his audiences to question and think about their own inner worlds. His images are so provocative and over the top precisely in order to spark these examinations, to draw powerful associations between the visceral disgust he's eliciting and the primal human emotions and ideas that are linked to this disgust. In this case: motherhood, childbirth, sex, familial bonds. The film's complex psychological subtext is intimately interwoven with its images of transgressive birthing and warped motherhood, with the frightening idea that children are just the amalgamation of their parents' neuroses and anguish. In that regard, it's telling that the film ends with an image of Nola's daughter (her real one) as her father drives her home. Maybe the film's real horror is the idea subtly buried at its core, that Nola's monstrous "children" are just physically deformed variations on the internal warping of Nola's real child, who is being shaped and hurt by her parents in the same way that Nola was by her own.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

12/11: Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs; Mother Küsters Goes To Heaven

One of the best outcomes of the recent Short Film blog-a-thon is that it's reawakened my interest in classic Warner Brothers animation, so I'll be watching a lot more of it from now on. These cartoons work especially well the way they were originally intended to be seen, as bonuses preceding a feature. In that regard, the 1943 Robert Clampett-directed Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs may not be the most logical choice for a light pre-feature diversion, but it's still a blast to watch. That is, if (and it's an admittedly big "if") one can get past the short's baldly racist caricatures and the consequent dated feeling of the humor. As the title implies, this is a parody of competitor Disney's Snow White, with all black clichés (they're hardly fully-formed characters) in the usual roles. The lead herself has morphed into So White, with her "coal black hair," short skirt showing off her endless legs, and wide eyes, a hyper-sexualized Dorothy Dandridge type (and why not, after all, since Dandridge's mother and sister provide the voice acting). The rest of the characters are even broader black stereotypes of the time: gigantic lips, even bigger feet, and a mouth full of gold teeth for Prince Chawmin' (capped off, hilariously, with dice for his two front teeth).

The stereotyping is outrageous, but I'll admit it barely distracted from my pure enjoyment of the cartoon, which in any case at least isn't mean-spirited in its caricaturing. Clampett intended to glorify black culture, not denigrate it, and even if his iconography is inextricably tied to the racist imagery of his day, there's no denying the sheer pleasure this film provides in its music and sense of rhythm and motion. There's just so much energy here that it's almost impossible to resist, and no amount of racial guilt can dull the impact of Clampett's frenetic pacing and rubbery character designs. The whole thing is set to a vibrant, jazzy score, and the characters half-sing, half-speak their words in rhyming couplets, while the action moves along at a breakneck pace that makes even the wildest of other Looney Tunes shorts seem turtle-like in comparison. And why not? After all, Clampett was essentially compressing the hour and a half of Snow White into less than 8 minutes, so it's natural that things get a bit frantic. The cartoon jumps, shimmies, and jives with such intensity and speed that the characters can barely sit still even to deliver their lines or get through the necessary scenes. When the evil witch comes to give So White the famous poison apple (riding up on a bicycle-propelled fruit cart), neither character can stop bouncing and dancing in place as they exchange dialogue, and they bring all their surroundings into harmony with their groove. The whole frame seems to be jittering in rhythm with the motion of their bodies, and even the sun can't help but dance in time to the music as it rises in the morning. No plot necessities are going to slow these characters down.

And they never do slow down, even for the obligatory kiss scene at the end, which instead of romance becomes downright kinky — people always have wondered about Snow White and those dwarfs. Clampett signals the film's overt sexuality almost right away, when the queen's first lines are not the familiar "who's the fairest one of all?" but: "Magic mirror, on the wall, send me a prince 'bout six feet tall." I dare you not to laugh. There are plenty more great lines here, and an overall mood of exuberance that propels the film through its ridiculous and sexualized parody of Disney's squeaky-clean masterpiece. Its blatant racism is hard to ignore, at least in the abstract, but at the same time it's so much fun — and such a brilliant example of Clampett's skill for high-energy animation — that it should be seen far and wide anyway. For now, you can only watch it at places like here, in a lousy n-th generation VHS dub, until Warner finally gets the guts to release it on DVD — and this mouth-watering blog post shows just how good this film could look.

Mother Küsters Goes To Heaven pretty much picks right up from where Rainer Werner Fassbinder's earlier Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? left off. The earlier film ends with the titular office worker, slowly ground down by work and domestic life, casually killing his wife and neighbor before killing himself. This film starts from a similar place, as the factory worker Hermann kills his boss and then himself before the film starts. Hermann's rampage happens off-screen, and his family hears about it on the radio, with no name attached, before a man arrives at their door to inform them about what happened. What ensues is a darkly comic chronicle of the titular Emma Küsters (Brigitte Mira), who is surrounded on all sides by cruelty, manipulation, and abandonment in the wake of her husband's death.

It should be no surprise that Fassbinder is here, as always, concerned with manipulation and people taking advantage of the misfortunes of others, but this may just be his darkest and most unflinching portrayal of these kinds of behavior. The film is exaggerated to the point of caricature, especially in the beginning sequences where reporters immediately descend upon the Küsters home, haranguing the family and asking leading questions that are clearly meant to bolster the inevitable sensationalist stories. There's also a photo session where the reporter Niemeyer (Gottfried John) photographs the weeping widow just days after her husband's death, asking her to pose with the dead man's photograph, and directing her on how to pose through her tears. Fassbinder keeps accumulating details in this way, not afraid to go well over the top to satirize the ways in which people trivialize and take advantage of tragedy. Later, Frau Küsters falls in with a group of Communists who tell her that her husband's deed was a "revolutionary" act, that he was unconsciously tapping into the workers' righteous anger at the capitalist system. The widow, desperate for company as her selfish children abandon her, joins the Party and makes speeches for them, but is disappointed that they seem to have no solutions for her or her husband's posthumous reputation — they're just using her for their own political aims.

This is a remarkably bitter satire, even for the always astringent Fassbinder, although flashes of dark wit and absurdist humor (like the drag ballerina dancing in the background of one scene) lighten the mood occasionally. The film again and again holds out hope to the widow that her life will improve, and then methodically, one by one, reveals the ways in which all these hopes will fail her: business, the journalists with their pretensions to "objective" truth, political movements, family. None of these outlets provide any real hope for this woman. Interestingly, there is a glimmer of hope in at least one of the film's endings, since the film had entirely opposite final scenes for the European and American markets. In the European version, the film ends when Emma becomes involved with an anarchist group who take over a newspaper office and threaten to kill hostages if their demands are not met. It's a masterfully executed scene, with Emma lurking silently in the background, realizing that she has once again been used by people who have no real interest in her. As the anarchist leader enumerates his demands to the police over the phone, the camera pans past his shoulder to reveal Emma's shocked and drained face, and the shot freezes as a lengthy on-screen text explains the violent bloodbath that follows, in which Mother Küsters fulfills the title's prediction. In the American release, though, the title is given a somewhat different and more hopeful meaning, as after a peaceful but unsuccessful sit-in at the newspaper, Emma meets an old and equally lonely janitor who offers to bring her back to his house for a dish he calls "heaven and earth."

These two endings provide two possible alternate realities for Frau Küsters' tortured life. Obviously, the European version is more in keeping with the rest of the film, and its objective textual recounting of the bloody final events reflects back on the journalistic satire earlier in the film. This resolution brings the film full circle, from one journalistic account of violent action (the radio report of Hermann's murder/suicide) to another. The American version, in holding out a genuine sliver of hope to Emma, breaks the film's cycle of negativity and cynicism, but it's somehow unbelievable, so totally out of keeping with the rest of the film (and the rest of Fassbinder's oeuvre) that one wonders why Fassbinder ever filmed it at all. The European version of the film is a minor masterpiece of manipulation and the isolation of the individual, harrowing in its single-minded devotion to a cycle of hope and disappointment that ends only in death. Thus, death for Mother Küsters is heaven not because of any Judeo-Christian religious underpinnings in the film, but because it represents a final end to the cruelty of worldly existence.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

12/9: Alice; Mo' Better Blues

Alice was Woody Allen's first film of the 90s, and he seems to have entered the decade already floundering and stumbling a bit, after a long string of worthwhile films all through the 80s. This story of a wealthy, insulated upper-class woman who's given up her earlier dreams and is only beginning to re-examine her life, is very familiar ground for Allen. He's recycling material here from many of his earlier dramas, especially September and Another Woman, albeit doing so in a magical realist comedy rather than a drama. Even so, the film feels like a somewhat slapdash retread. Another Woman wove dreams, fantasies, and internal thought processes into the visual fabric of its protagonist's life, and this film takes on much the same structure, with the twist being that instead of dreams, the fantastical interludes are meant to be real manifestations of magic and the supernatural in this otherwise believable world.

Woody has flirted with the supernatural before, especially in the ending of the lightweight but fun Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, and much more successfully with the straight-faced fantasy of Purple Rose of Cairo. The intrusion of magic into the life of Alice (Mia Farrow) is handled in a similar deadpan manner, with a casual acceptance of even the most absurd events, but the film nevertheless feels like an awkward pastiche that never quite comes together. Alice is the stereotypical rich man's wife, married to successful businessman Doug Tate (William Hurt), with two children who she loves, but in the midst of her busy life she feels strangely unfulfilled. The accumulation of material goods, the shopping, the gossipy women around her, endlessly chattering about each other's affairs, the dull parties and society functions: it begins to strike her that this wasn't the life she wanted. Alice also yearns to express herself creatively, or at least to do something with her life more substantial than her current high-society blandness allows. It's familiar ground for Woody, to say the least, and for anyone who's followed his films as well. I'm just not sure that the film has much to add on these familiar subjects. Gena Rowland's slow awakening to the banality of her life (and her own role in causing it) in Another Woman was genuinely moving and enthralling, making for Allen's best foray into drama yet. Farrow's also a fine actress, but this film seems insubstantial by comparison, with not as much investment in the characters or attempt to differentiate them from past Allen types.

Still, it's not without some charm and appeal, especially in a few of the more magical sequences, representing Alice's escapes from her humdrum routine. The magic enters the film through somewhat questionable means: the Chinese acupuncturist Dr. Yang (Keye Luke), an Orientalist caricature with a disquieting resemblance to Yoda in his verbal rhythms (raising the question of whether or not Lucas' creation was a racial caricature in the first place, but that's another topic). Despite this distracting outburst of racism, Woody makes good use of the film's magical contrivances. When Alice, under the influence of an herb Dr. Yang gave her to boost her confidence, begins verbally seducing Joe (Joe Mantegna), a man she met at her kids' school, it's a hilarious scene, mainly because Farrow gives such a convincing performance as the stiff woman finally breaking out of her shell. Her whispery, husky mutterings about jazz and music (Joe's a saxophonist) hide thinly veiled sexual references, and the scene is both sexy and funny; in other words, Woody at his best. In another scene, the new couple takes advantage of the invisibility potion that Yang gave to her in order to walk around the city unseen, and spy on friends, and again the scene's magic completely works. Less successful is the Peter Pan parody in which one of Alice's old (and now deceased) lovers takes her on a flight across Manhattan to one of their old haunts.

Alice ultimately falls flat as a problematic and flawed revisiting of old themes and recycled characters, a serious decline from the high level that Allen maintained all through the 80s. I realize that in my chronological journey through his films, I now have the whole much-maligned stretch of his 90s films ahead of me, and I've really been hoping that I'd feel differently about these films than other critics have. Alice, as the first misstep in Allen's output in quite a long while, subdues those hopes a little, though by no means stifles them. Even despite the film's problems, there are flashes of the wit and insight and charm that have always made Allen's work so compulsively watchable.

Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues is a masterfully executed drama about the self-obsessed jazz musician Bleek Gilliam (Denzel Washington, in a great and carefully controlled performance) and his struggles with both creative expression and his relationships with lovers and friends. It's as stylistically overblown and in-your-face as most of Lee's other films, though it contrasts this boisterousness against an uncharacteristically quiet and unassuming central narrative. Visually, the film is never less than dazzling, with particularly nice use of colored lighting, especially in the jazz scenes. This conceit is introduced right in the opening credits, which feature images drenched in singular color schemes, all bright reds, deep blues, purples, and blinding yellows. Periodically throughout the film these color fields return, signaling a flight from the accurate depiction of reality into a stylized fantasy. Significantly, the device is utilized almost exclusively for the jazz performances and the brief but potent sex scenes. In this film, creative expression and romantic love are set up as essential opposite poles, or better yet, two sides of the same coin. Creativity and sex are established as the two options for escaping from drab everyday reality into a higher plane of pleasure and meaning.

When the film starts, after a short introduction set in Bleek's childhood, the adult Bleek has conclusively chosen music, although it doesn't stop him from carrying on ardent but ultimately casual affairs with both Indigo (Joie Lee) and Clarke (Cynda Williams). Music is the most important thing in his life, and his frequent affairs with women are at best secondary matters in his life. For him, jazz music is not just a way to make a living or a diversionary entertainment, but a deep creative form and, most importantly, an essentially black form of music that links him to his people. He only laments that nowadays, "his people" don't seem to care anymore, and his audiences are primarily white. His bandmate, Shadow (Wesley Snipes), attributes this to the type of music that Bleek chooses to play, which he says is too egocentric and not in touch with what black people want to hear. But later in the film, when Shadow finally gets his own band like he'd wanted, his own audience is primarily white as well.

This issue of music's racial identity and the possibility of music to speak to a people sits on the periphery of Mo' Better Blues, but it's one of the film's more interesting subtexts. Lee never addresses the issue directly, except in the brief conversation between Bleek and Shadow, but the somewhat surprising conclusion that one might draw from this exchange, and from the audience at Shadow's later performance, is that it's futile to believe that art is anything more than a moment's entertainment. Shadow incorporates a much more authentically "black" vibe into his music, through the vocals of Clarke, singing about life in Harlem, but these gestures towards greater relevance to "his people" don't improve the proportion of black faces in the crowd listening. In this sense, Shadow might be thought of as a Spike Lee stand-in, making socially relevant commentary aimed at blacks, but increasingly watched by whites who often ignore or misunderstand the films' messages (as in Do the Right Thing, possibly the most misunderstood film of all time). Then again, it may just be a question of finding the proper medium. Bleek, in one of his routines, viciously mocks rap music, but it's undeniable that in 1990 or today, if one wanted to craft a socially relevant song aimed at black audiences, it would have a much greater chance of reaching its target as a rap rather than a jazz number. It may be that Lee is not questioning the efficacy of art as social message in general, but simply bemoaning the loss of his beloved jazz as a way of communicating with black audiences.

Faced with this declining relevance (and his own inability to play anymore thanks to an accident), Bleek is forced to reconsider what he might best do with his life to fill the central place that music held in it. The film's denouement is a heartfelt and deeply moving tribute to the pleasures of domestic life and raising a traditional family. The final minutes of the film condense many years into a brief span in a rapidly edited montage in which Bleek is seen marrying Indigo, accompanying her to the hospital for the birth of their son, and raising the boy to be the same age that Bleek himself was in the film's opening scene. The two scenes mirror each other almost exactly: the boy is practicing the trumpet when his friends come calling, his mother demands that the boys leave them alone, and the boy begs to be allowed to go play outside. The difference is that in the final scene, Bleek allows his son to go outside instead of keeping him in for more lessons, suggesting that he's realized that there's more to life than art. This final montage is also implicitly linked with an earlier tirade by Bleek's father, who decries his son's womanizing ways, warning him not to make the problem of black unwed mothers any worse. The film's ultimate message of family values is extraordinarily positive, but it could be argued that Lee stacks the deck here — his montage pointedly omits any reference to what job Bleek might take with his musical career in tatters, focusing instead on a thoroughly idealized depiction of a happy domestic life.

More troubling problems arise from the film's occasional engagement with race, which in places lacks the sensitivity or depth of Do the Right Thing. Most notably, John Turturro and his brother Nicholas are given perfunctory roles as sleazy white club owners, caricatures of greedy white economic domination with no trace of the depth given to the film's black characters. Also problematic is the depiction of the white girlfriend of one of the black musicians, who's continually taunted and given a paper-thin mockery of a role: shrewish, demanding, and vacuous in contrast to the earthy sensuality and intelligence of the film's black women. Lee seems to be wholly on the side of the other musicians, who cruelly make fun of their bandmate by hanging photo cutouts of naked black women on his dressing room table. Lee's own negative opinion of interracial dating is well-known, and in his films he often allows himself to slip into broad caricaturing to make his points about whites' treatment of blacks. The result, in the few places in this film in which white characters figure, is simply racism.

On the whole, though, Mo' Better Blues avoids such pitfalls, and the result is a fine and emotionally powerful film, both a poetic ode to the beauty of jazz, and an examination of the alternate routes of family and creativity in black life. Not as incendiary or message-oriented as its predecessor Do the Right Thing, this film is concerned with more intimate and internal concerns, questions of the individual's path in life and the creative outlets available to him.