Thursday, April 30, 2009

Late Chrysanthemums

Mikio Naruse was, throughout the 50s, an unflinching chronicler of the often miserable conditions facing people — women, especially — in post-war Japan. Late Chrysanthemums is a particularly harrowing example of this director's hyper-detailed, nuanced, quietly moving portrayals of people suffering within a ruined and humbled nation. Naruse is concerned with the dismal state of the Japanese economy in the post-war era, and the ways in which the lack of money and opportunities affected the relationships between people. Everything becomes about money, every conversation has money at its root: how to get it, how to keep it, what to spend it on if one has it.

The film is focused on a quartet of middle-aged women friends, all of whom had been geishas together in their youth but who are now lonely and struggling. Of the four, Okin (Haruko Sugimura) is by far the best off. She is a shrewd moneylender, and when the film opens she is making her rounds of Tokyo, demanding payment from the various people — many of them her friends — who owe her money. She is obsessed with accumulating wealth, though she never seems to spend it on anything. She invests her money in real estate and accumulates more, and she earns interest on her loans, and her wealth keeps gathering as an aim unto itself. There is nothing she wants to buy, nothing she's saving for, and no one in her life who she can share her fortune with. She simply wants the money, and feels no guilt or hesitation in shaming her friends into paying her back faster, taking whatever they can scrape together for her from their meager salaries.

While Okin prospers, her friends Tamae (Chikako Hosokawa) and Tomi (Yûko Mochizuki) are just barely getting by, while Nobu (Sadako Sawamura) at least has her bar to earn a steady income. Tamae and Tomi are not so lucky, and they have to make do with whatever odd jobs they can hold onto, often doing hard and demeaning work as maids or cleaners. They both have grown children who are ungrateful and are now leaving to start their own lives, getting married and moving away, leaving their mothers lonely and without any real means of support. This is heavy, depressing material, draining in its effect, but Naruse treats it with a direct, no-nonsense style that accentuates the casual realism of the story. His unobtrusive style is quite distinct from the stylized framings of his contemporary Yasujiro Ozu, to whom he is so often compared. Naruse prefers not to call attention to himself, not to aestheticize his images in quite the same way. Rather, his style appears in the languid rhythm of his editing, which breathes with the flow of daily life. The film is comprised almost entirely of dialogue scenes in which the characters interact and bounce off one another, airing their problems and grievances. Naruse's crisp, intuitive cutting tends to circle around a scene from every angle, breaking up the dialogue so as to avoid conventional shot/counter-shot patterns that follow the speech. Instead, Naruse sometimes focuses on the speaker, sometimes on the listener, and sometimes cuts around the room to two-shots filmed from eccentric angles, as though hoping to catch these characters unawares.

Naruse's style shows itself in other subtle ways as well. He is particularly concerned with objects, with the concrete, and money appears constantly throughout the film: there are many scenes of Okin counting money, rifling through stacks of bills and then placing them inside her kimono. Later, she mimics the gesture when she receives a letter from her old lover Tabe (Ken Uehara), for whom she still fosters warm feelings and fond memories. Anything that she cherishes she keeps close to her heart, inside her garments, and she treats her wads of money and a letter from the man she loves with the same sacred reverence. Naruse is careful to accentuate the way these gestures — one of greed and one of desire — mirror one another.

He also finds the mirroring in the two men who visit Okin's home over the course of the film. The first is Seki (Bontarô Miyake), a man who had once loved Okin so desperately that he tried to kill her and then himself; he wanted them to die together as a gesture of perfect love. He failed, however, and destroyed the rest of his life in the process. Now it is many years later and he comes crawling back to her, begging for money, but she is scornful and sends him away. His departure is iconic. Naruse places his camera in Okin's entranceway, facing towards her door, behind her seated form as she watches Seki leave. After he closes her screened front door, his shadow is briefly visible through the door, while Okin turns to the side, unable even to look at this wispy fragment. Later, when Tabe visits, Okin is excited and is careful to make herself up nicely for him, but it turns out that he too has changed greatly, has been drained of his passion. He gets drunk over the course of the night and becomes pathetic, begging her for a loan, which she refuses. When he leaves in the morning, sobered up, his departure mirrors Seki's exactly, with Okin sitting on the opposite side of the entranceway, watching his shadow through the door as he leaves.

The utilitarian elegance of Naruse's imagery reflects his concern with the lives of average Japanese people, living in a society unbalanced by the shame of a lost war and the utter decimation of their economy. Further, he is documenting a culture on the verge of drastic upheavals: the geisha lifestyle that these women knew as young girls is no longer the same, and all around them are the signs of the steady encroachment of Western ways. They still dress in kimonos and cling to the old ways, but not everyone on the streets does. This is most strikingly demonstrated in the penultimate scene, in which Tamae and Tomi see a young girl in a tight sweater and slacks come bouncing along the street, doing the signature Marilyn Monroe walk, with her hips swiveling pneumatically. The older women giggle like schoolgirls and attempt an impersonation, but they know that this is "grotesque," that they are not a part of this new culture that seems to be developing. They have been left behind. Even the rare comedic moments like this are layered with a note of the bittersweet, the melancholy. This is a grim, dark film, a tragedy of minor failures and loneliness. There are no big tragic events, no devastating shocks, only small details from everyday life, an accumulation of insignificant incidents and conversations that together create a portrait of a society slowly drowning, desperately floundering and kicking to keep its head above the water.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Flying Doctors of East Africa/Handicapped Future

Werner Herzog's "documentaries" are generally known as strange, hybrid affairs, often incorporating nearly as much fictional material as his proper fiction features — thus, the common conceit of surrounding the word "documentary" with quotes when it's applied to this idiosyncratic filmmaker. But early in his career, Herzog made a pair of proper documentaries for German TV, films that set themselves apart from his other work in their polemical and educational purpose. Herzog himself viewed them not as artistic films but as more practical pieces of work, films made to fulfill a specific societal purpose. They are anomalies in his career, though neither is without interest or utterly devoid of typically Herzogian moments. The Flying Doctors of East Africa, made in 1969, is a report on the conditions of medical treatment in the African nations of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Herzog was in Africa working more or less simultaneously on this film, Fata Morgana and Even Dwarves Started Small, interweaving the production of this practical feature with his more personal work. The film has an obvious documentary purpose, to raise awareness about poor living conditions in Africa, and to chronicle some of the hard work being done by a multinational force of doctors and nurses to treat and educate these people living in unimaginable poverty.

There are thus several harrowing sequences depicting the rough, makeshift surgeries these doctors must perform, dealing with inadequate supplies, haphazard sterilization (during one surgeon, a priest stands nearby with a can of bug spray to chase away insects as they congregate by the operating table) and the ignorance of the locals to good hygiene or the use of medicine. Herzog documents all of this with a steady, unflinching eye, and as a report on the conditions of people living in Africa it is undoubtedly effective. It publicized the doctors' mission and probably helped to mobilize some support for what they were doing as well. This was the film's primary goal, and Herzog sticks to it with a single-minded simplicity that would rarely be seen in his personal work.

That said, he can't seem to resist finding ancillary points of interest within this material, and despite the uncharacteristically straightforward message and the generic British narrator who translates the English version of the film, the images here are unmistakably Herzog's. His interviews in particular are framed and staged in much the same way as the notoriously eccentric interviews dotting the second half of Fata Morgana. He shoots people from dead on, with a curiously abstracted distance that sets them off against their backgrounds and gives a faintly surreal edge to even the most prosaic scenes. It's hard to describe what exactly is so unsettling about these Herzogian interviews; the interview subjects are invariably stiff and awkward, alternately staring into the camera or uncomfortably and pointedly looking off to the side. When an Irish nurse speaks about the way that the natives ignore advice and interrupt treatment, Herzog frames her from a considerable distance, so that her white form is stretched across the frame from top to bottom. She speaks haltingly in English, as though it wasn't her first language, or as though she were reading from cue cards — which in Herzog's later, more stylized documentaries, wouldn't be out of the question.

The director also finds time to stumble across some particularly Herzogian non-sequiturs, and he includes several as interludes between the more serious segments. At one point, the voiceover describes how the local hyenas like to chew the tires on the doctors' airplanes, and have developed a taste for a particular Firestone type: "what makes this particular brand so tasty has not yet been discovered," the narrator deadpans, leaving a long pause for a rimshot while Herzog's camera lingers beneath an airplane's nose. There's also the weird shot of five missionary priests shuffling back and forth in formation along a dirt path, rearranging themselves as though obeying the arcane instructions of someone just offscreen. But Herzog never explains the shot, letting it just sit there in all its strangeness while the voiceover mundanely describes the priests' function in Africa. Moments like this suggest that even in a seemingly prosaic film like this, Herzog's active visual imagination and instinct for the unusual enlivens the film's straightforward reportage.

This is not so much the case, however, with Handicapped Future, a film that Herzog made two years later in order to raise awareness of the treatment of handicapped people in Germany at the time. This is surely the most polemical film that the avowedly apolitical Herzog ever made. It is utterly stripped-down in form, in order to communicate its message more directly. This message is a simple one, too: the treatment of the handicapped in 1970s Germany is utterly dire, and needs to be drastically altered if the children depicted in this film are ever going to have a happy, productive future. In interviews with children who are afflicted by various forms of disability — shortened or missing limbs, paralyzation, deformed bodies — and their parents, Herzog probes at the prejudice and societal ignorance these people encounter every day. With no real attempt to integrate children with disabilities into society, they are often shuffled off to institutions where they are cared for but not given any real opportunity to become independent, to do things for themselves, to become true members of society. Herzog finds many people who care for and help these children, genuinely good people trying to do their best, but he also finds a larger societal climate that is ignorant of the whole problem.

The film contrasts this situation against the treatment of people with disabilities in America at the same time. In order to do this, Herzog traveled to California to spend time with Dr. Adolf Ratzka, who had been afflicted with polio as a child and was as a result unable to walk and forced to spend his nights in an apparatus to help him breathe. Nevertheless, he is almost entirely independent thanks to an electronic wheelchair, a specially customized car with all the controls triggered by hand, and architectural surroundings much more friendly to the handicapped than those in Germany. Ratzka, who had moved to California from Munich, explicitly makes the comparison, describing how much easier it is to get around in his new home, where there are wheelchair ramps and elevators everywhere, and far fewer obstacles to his progress.

Herzog presents all of this with a flat, observational tone, with only sporadic overt commentary. The images of disabled children struggling to learn how to walk and balance themselves are heartbreaking, and it's obvious that Herzog intends them to be. It's hardly a true Herzog film, but it's a masterful piece of propaganda, and it reportedly did its job at the time. When the film was aired on German television, it apparently became a crucial factor in mobilizing activism and change within the systems designed to treat and care for the disabled in Germany. It presented not only an alternate way of doing things, but an alternate way of even thinking about such issues.

Films I Love #29: Vendredi soir (Claire Denis, 2001)

Vendredi soir is not French director Claire Denis' best known or most critically lauded film, but it is her sweetest, her warmest, her most romantic, her most stripped down and simple, a purely sensual ode to desire and sex. The images of Denis' long-time cinematographer, Agnès Godard, are always lush and colorful and sumptuous, and she outdoes herself here, creating a sensuous moving postcard of Paris on a cold, rainy, busy Friday night. On the eve of moving in with her boyfriend, Laure (Valérie Lemercier) finishes packing and then goes out to spend the evening with friends. But Paris is at a standstill, with a tremendous traffic jam keeping her near-stopped. Along the way, she picks up a stranger named Jean (Vincent Lindon), who joins her in the slowly moving car to stay out of the cold. The pair then spend the night together, having sex at a nearby hotel, eating dinner, exchanging laconic conversation but mostly remaining strangers, locked in their own worlds.

Denis never probes these characters psychologically, never provides any hint of why they sleep together, why they're drawn to each other. She never ventures into their heads, lingering instead on the surface. This is, in one sense, a kind of feminist statement, suggesting that women can initiate and enjoy casual sex for its own sake as much as men, but more deeply the film is simply a celebration of sex and sensual pleasure, period. Denis presents the encounter itself almost entirely in abstracted closeups: chests pressing together, fingers running along bare skin, feet rubbing together, legs crossing over one another, eyes peeking out from around the contours of the other's body. Denis surrounds the sex scenes with whimsical touches, bits of rough but clever animation, ways of opening up the night, the city, the rain, the traffic to the same level of sensual enjoyment as the sex itself. Bored in traffic, Laure playfully imagines the letters on a car's rear bumper rearranging themselves, a stray "S" dancing along the car's rain-streaked surface. At dinner, the toppings on a pizza form a smiling face. The film is all about sensual pleasure, the little joys of daily life, and Denis emphasizes small gestures, finding the beauty and poetry in everything from the lights of the city to the smoke curling from the tip of a cigarette to the act of making love.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Autumn Tale

The final chapter of Eric Rohmer's "Four Seasons" cycle is Autumn Tale. Like the other films in the series, it takes its title as more than a mere invitation to set its story in a particular season; its evocation of autumn is concerned with the moods, emotions and resonances associated with the fall. Rohmer, who in his maturity often worked with very youthful casts (as he had, for the most part, in the cycle's previous three films), seems very conscious of the fact that autumn is not just a time of year but also a time in a person's life. Thus, this film shifts the focus of the narrative away from the younger protagonists of the other "Four Seasons" films, centering the story around a pair of middle-aged friends, Isabelle (Marie Rivière) and Magali (Béatrice Romand). This casting is surely very self-conscious, since both Rivière and Romand have not only worked with Rohmer quite frequently before, but had both been, roughly a decade earlier, the stars of two films from his "Comedies and Proverbs" cycle. In those films, Rivière (in The Green Ray) and Romand (in A Good Marriage) had both played stubborn, determined, idiosyncratic women looking for love but willing to accept it only on their own terms. They are different women here, different characters, but there is nevertheless no escaping the resonance of seeing them reappear, a decade or fifteen years older, matured into middle age, with very different concerns and attitudes from the women they'd played in Rohmer's earlier films.

Isabelle is married and settled, content in her life and about to see her daughter (Aurélia Alcaïs) get married. Magali, on the other hand, is discontented; she is a widow, and now that her children have grown up and are moving out on their own, she feels loneliness setting up. She is a true Rohmer heroine, though, stubborn and self-reliant, and she refuses to lower herself or appear desperate in order to find a man. Instead, she pours herself into the work at the vineyard she owns, maintaining her fierce pride for the quality of the wine she produces. She is also comforted by the presence of the young and vibrant Rosine (Alexia Portal), the girlfriend of her son Léo (Stéphane Darmon). Rosine isn't serious about Léo — she's just getting over an affair with her teacher Étienne (Didier Sandre) — but she is fascinated by Magali, and loves spending time with her at the older woman's vineyard. Rosine concocts a plan to get over her professor and simultaneously find someone for Magali, so she plots to bring the two of them together. At the same time, Isabelle is planning something very similar; she places an ad in a newspaper, and when the divorced businessman Gérald (Alain Libolt) answers it, she initially poses as Magali in order to judge this man's acceptability for her friend.

Obviously, the romantic entanglements in this film are complex: triangles and quadrangles worthy of Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, including the younger generation as well as the older. Rohmer juggles it all with a lightness and irreverence that keeps the plot's twists and turns from descending into melodrama. No one bursts into tears or makes sudden rash pronouncements; everything is played with smiles and subtleties as theses characters glide around each other, flirting and matchmaking and playing games with love. It's a breezy, playful film, treating middle-aged romance with the kind of breathless charm and sentimentality usually reserved for depictions of young lovers. When Gérald and Magali first meet, their conversation is touchingly awkward and halting, interrupted by slight pauses and nervous giggling. The chemistry is obvious, though, inscribed in their body language and immediate intimacy, the way they subtly shift their bodies towards one another as they talk, shuffling nervously and coming together as though dancing.

No one is better than Rohmer at capturing the intricate and layered subtleties of these kinds of meetings, these kinds of relationships, either developing or disintegrating or hovering between states. The tentative romance between Magali and Gérald is only one thread running through a film whose structure is criss-crossed with delicate strands connecting its characters. There's even the flirtation between Gérald and Isabelle, since the former initially thinks that it's Isabelle, and not Magali, whose ad he has answered: a connection forms between them and is then aborted when Isabelle finally reveals the truth, though Rohmer continues to examine the aftermath of this revelation with characteristic candor.

There is a devastating moment where Isabelle, having already started Gérald on the path towards hooking up with her friend, continues to semi-innocently flirt with him, to toy with him a little, and it's devastating because it feels so real, so naked and emotionally vulnerable. It's obvious, in every movement of Isabelle's body, in every nuanced expression nervously playing across her face, that she's feeling a brief tinge of middle-aged insecurity, a desire to feel wanted, to feel some passion. It's not that she's dissatisfied with her own marriage, only that she wants a little more of the youthful excitement she felt when arranging clandestine dates with Gérald. Rohmer doesn't judge, and he doesn't allow this moment — only a moment, transitory but no less powerfully felt — to overwhelm either the narrative or the characters. He's only interested in getting at the complex feelings awakened by this airy matchmaking comedy.

More than anything, Rohmer recognizes the danger inherent in love, the complicated mixture of trust and openness and spontaneity that love requires to really blossom. And he understands how fragile it is, how easily stifled by factors beyond either party's control. Rohmer's touch is light, and his style is nearly invisible, subtly framing his characters within luminous outdoor landscapes where their romantic dramas can play out. His characters are always conscious of their surroundings, and Magali's love of the countryside is a constant presence here, as is the pair of industrial smokestacks that can be seen from various angles around the countryside and often appear in the background of shots, an intrusion of the modern age into this idyllic region. As the characters speak about the scenery, Rohmer's images quietly capture the essence of these places, the natural beauty that these people cherish so much. The film opens with a montage of silent, mostly unpopulated street scenes interspersed with the titles, setting the mood through an evocation of place. Rohmer is deeply sensitive to small touches like this, and this fine, charming film, populated with wonderful performances and enduring characters, is a fun and affecting final movement to complete his seasonal quartet.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Shadow of the Thin Man/The Thin Man Goes Home

Hollywood films have always thrived on formula, and this is especially true of ongoing serials like the Thin Man series starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. The duo made six films together as the debonair, martini-swilling private detective Nick Charles and his feisty, wealthy wife Nora. Throughout all six films, the duo cracked wise and mugged for the camera, Loy casting her sly sideways glances at Powell and pursing her lips in that special prim way she had and arching her eyebrows so high they threatened to disappear beneath her hat brims. Her face seemed to have been molded especially for this part, slipping easily into Nora's incredibly complicated facial contortions, her sly sarcasm and pert, unflappable charm. Nora's the kind of woman who will go to a wrestling match and then politely wish a headlocked brawler luck, with a tip of the hat and a slight curtsy, when she has to leave early. This particular bit of business is just one of her class act moments from Shadow of the Thin Man, the fourth installment in the series and the last one to be helmed by director W.S. Van Dyke before his death.

As usual, Nora often steals the show here even though her husband's the detective and ostensible lead in these stories. The appeal of these films is always the interplay of this charismatic couple as much as, if not more than, the actual mystery plot. The narrative usually twists itself into ever more outrageous knots in the background while Nick and Nora banter and attempt to outwit one another, playing coy games of verbal tag while the bodies pile up. So Nora gets a lot of great moments, including a fun variation on the "follow that car" gag that I'm sure I've seen in other Hollywood films but is still a kick because of Loy's nonplussed facial expression. But Nick is no slouch either. He shares a lot of his screen time in this one with the couple's trick-performing dog Asta, who is memorably introduced as being willing to "chase tigers" but then gets spooked by a little black kitten — and who, incidentally, rears up on his hind legs and displays "little Asta" a disturbing number of times, something I don't really remember from previous Thin Man films.

It's also worth noting that the couple has a kid around for this one, a baby in the previous film but now grown into a little boy who provides a few lame and unfunny gags during the opening half-hour. Fortunately, Nick and Nora, maybe realizing the little brat is dragging them down, pawn him off on the black maid (Louise Beavers, as a broadly mugging caricature who seems to have wandered in off the vaudeville stage) and proceed to forget about him entirely for the rest of the film. They're bad parents, maybe, heading off to throw down cocktails and start bar fights and race turtles (yes, really!), but it's all so much fun that who really cares where the kid winds up while all this is going on? And of course, these films being utterly dependent on formula, the whole mystery — something involving race track betting and blackmail and you know the deal — is wound up in one of Nick's famous parlor scenes, dragging together the whole rogues' gallery of hoods and molls and gangsters so he can explain to them which of them did the deed. As usual, Nick and Nora get some admirable support: most notably, Stella Adler as a con woman whose high society accent slips into gutter slang when she's angry, and Sam Levene reprising his role as the perpetually confused Lt. Abrams (who first appeared in After the Thin Man).

But four films into the series, one senses the familiar conventions beginning to get threadbare. All the expected scenes play out, all the character bits are there, all the right notes are hit, but one wonders if there's really anything left to do with the characters of Nick and Nora, who had basically been repeating their schtick since the first film.

Then again, the fifth Nick and Nora film, The Thin Man Goes Home, suggests that maybe all that was needed was a change of scenery to reignite some of the series' energy and freshness. One would think that making Nick into a teetotaller this time around would suck all the remaining life out of the party — and it remains a bizarre and uncharacteristic touch, even if it is explained by Nick's desire to please his constantly disapproving father — but for the most part this fifth film rediscovers that special Nick and Nora magic. With this one, the directorial reins were handed over to Richard Thorpe, who was a fine replacement for Van Dyke in that both were Hollywood career men with little discernible visual style, solid mid-level craftsmen churning out dozens of pictures of mostly undistinguished quality. Thorpe's mundane visual sense is most apparent in the lackluster opening, in which Nick and Nora take a train ride to go visit Nick's parents in the country (leaving their son back home once again; model parents, these two). The awkwardly staged and paced slapstick of these opening minutes threatens an utterly dull Thin Man picture.

Fortunately, once the couple arrives in the country, the fun begins. Nick is obviously there on the case, and has a lowlife buddy named Brogan (the great character actor Edward Brophy) on the scene, though the guy keeps getting caught hiding in the bushes and generally acting very suspicious. Meanwhile, Nick's parents (Lucile Watson and Harry Davenport) think their son's a goofy slacker and quite possibly a drunk, and nobody believes that Nick can really find any mysteries to solve in this sleepy little town — at least until a young painter turns up on their doorstep and is promptly shot dead. The plot is one of the looniest and most convoluted in the series, and Nick's parlor revelations at the end don't really answer the big questions like what he was really investigating here or how he knew about it or what the hell was actually going on. Somehow it hardly matters. Who cares about murders when there's the tongue-twisting lunacy of Nick sparring with a nebbishy art dealer (Donald Meek, another great character actor — this film is packed with 'em)? Then there's the brilliantly staged three-way tail sequence with Nora following Brogan while a shadowy third party trails them both: the long shots of the three of them spread out in a straight line along the diagonal of a shop-lined street suggest that maybe Thorpe had more panache than expected.

Best of all, though, is Nora's hilarious, breathless recital of the infamous story of "Stinky Davis" and how her husband caught this dastardly killer. It's one of Loy's best moments in the whole series, a verbal tour de force that has her spitting out long streams of outlandish gangster names that sound like rejected Dick Tracy villains, weaving the whole thing together into a wild story of Nick's detective prowess. It's an amazing monologue, supported admirably by Davenport's flustered sputtering throughout. Loy and Davenport play off of one another again in the film's final scene, which delivers the expected parlor scene where Nick reveals all, but subtly tweaks it. The thing is, Nora knows what's going to happen as well as the audience does; she's seen this all before just like we have. So she provides a running metafictional commentary throughout the scene, laying out ahead of time exactly how the action will be structured and then interjecting her thoughts at key moments. Thorpe cuts to her for reaction shots whenever the scene hits one of its narrative beats, so that Nora's meta-commentary is used to punctuate the action. It's hard to believe, but within this silly, whimsical 40s murder mystery, the final scene is simultaneously delivering the conventional resolution and deconstructing the ways in which these types of scenes usually work.

Despite its shaky opening, the fifth Thin Man is a real delight, a rejuvenation of the series' formula. What's striking is that in reinvigorating the form of these films, it doesn't really do all that much to change that form. The usual elements are all in place, the verbal humor, the low-key sleuthing through shadowy dark rooms and back streets, the convoluted mysteries with the killer identified only at the last moment as the last person you'd suspect. The Thin Man Goes Home breathes new life into the series not by bucking the formula but by reinforcing it, developing it in a new context, spinning out clever variations on the same old thing. This was the genius of the classic Hollywood era in general, and certainly the genius of the Thin Man movies: who wants change when the same old thing is Loy and Powell at their sparkling, quick-witted best?


The title of Maurice Pialat's Police announces itself as a certain kind of genre picture, a thriller, a policier, and for at least part of its length it seems to be fulfilling the conventions of its genre. It opens with the police detective Louis Mangin (Gérard Depardieu) getting turned on to a drug trafficking ring by the small-time crook Claude (Bentahar Meaachou), who has basically no choice but to turn informant or else get sent to jail himself. Mangin then pulls in the drug dealer Simon (Jonathan Leïna) and his girl Noria (Sophie Marceau), even though he has no more evidence on them than Claude's testimony, and a search of their apartment yields nothing. This drags into play a whole underground network of crooks and dealers and pimps and killers with their clandestine meetings and dirty deeds, all of them fighting and killing each other over the drugs and money being passed around within their insular, scary world. This is the set-up for a gritty crime drama, and its plot does indeed mix in plenty of guns, mysterious caches of money, night-time shootings and stabbings, and drugs hidden away in secret locations. And yet the film more or less uses these events and genre conventions as a background to its real concern, which is the interaction of its ever-widening cast of characters, its realist concern for the lives of people living on the edge of legality and crime in various ways. In the end, the term "crime film" is not its genre but its setting, its milieu. It's about people living life as though it was a crime film, people hiding out in grimy apartments and low-life bars, people with shifty eyes for whom lying is as natural as breathing. It's also about the marginalized status of Arab immigrants within French society, and the way that these Tunisian gangs form an entire alternative culture within their host country.

Many of these concerns doubtless originated with the film's script, conceived and co-written by the filmmaker Catherine Breillat, but it's Pialat's characteristic loose, improvisational style that really seems to drive the film. After the initial burst of crime drama clichés, the story settles down into an eventless pace, destabilizing genre expectations and blurring the usually rigid lines delineating hero from villain in these kinds of stories. There is no solid ground here, no definitive moral compass. Everyone is corrupt to one degree or another, and the cops are nearly as bad as the criminals, or maybe even worse. Mangin and his buddies certainly don't play by the rules. They're brutal and nasty and tend to presume guilt in everyone they see; sometimes they're right and sometimes they're wrong, but their methods are draconian and cruel. Mangin especially is violent and contemptuous of procedure. He beats on prisoners and even slaps Noria around. In the absence of actual evidence, he tries to bully suspects into confessing their crimes. At one point, the cops bring in a guy suspected of pulling a robbery at a jewelry store. But when the old lady from the shop not only fails to identify him, but specifically points him out as the one guy in the line-up who couldn't be the robber, the cops don't give up or set him free. Instead, they subject him to a battery of brutal interviews, berating him with questions and insisting that he's been identified as the robber, finally beating his head against a desk when he refuses to say he did it (he didn't, it seems).

Further blurring the line between good guys and bad guys is Lambert (Richard Anconina), a sleazy, amoral defense attorney who represents various underworld figures and proudly announces that he's not one of those lawyers who needs to believe in his clients' innocence to defend them: "I know all my clients are guilty!" Oddly enough, he's good friends with Mangin and frequently meets with his buddy after hours to compare notes or engage in some shady, semi-legal business together — like setting up a local pimp for some jail time because Lambert has his eye on the pimp's main girl Lydie (Sandrine Bonnaire). At the same time, Lambert doesn't want to do this forever; his ultimate career goal is to become a public prosecutor. It's not an unrealistic idea, either, because there's already so much fluidity between good and bad in this world: none of the good guys can escape corruption, just as none of the bad guys are without their redeeming qualities. Even among the Tunisian gangsters, there is a sense of familial loyalty and a code of honor that ties them together; Simon's bumbling, oafish brothers Maxime (Abdel Kader Touati) and Jean (Jamil Bouarada) are pretty rotten and stupid, but they love their brother and their mom, who seems to be in on their crime ring in some amorphous way.

As Pialat and Breillat dig deeper and deeper into this milieu, the film becomes less and less concerned with its ostensible thriller plot. Moreover, it starts to erase the distinctions between cop and criminal that set everything in motion to begin with. At some point around halfway through the film, the script elliptically skips over at least a few weeks without warning, and throws cops and criminals together in unpredictable arrangements. Noria has been released from jail thanks to Lambert's defense, though Simon has remained behind bars on equally flimsy evidence. But Mangin seems unconcerned, and the film's turning point comes during a night out on the town for dinner and dancing, with Lambert and Mangin being joined my Noria, Lydie and one of Mangin's colleagues, Marie (Pascale Rocard). The plot seems to have been forgotten, and Mangin, who is as vicious as a pit bull when he gets a suspect in front of him, couldn't care less if his detainees are released without charges later. His amorality extends even to his work ethic; he sees policework as just something to do, a job rather than a calling, and he disowns responsibility the minute his part in the process is complete.

This is why Mangin can spend the night out with one of his former suspects, and even start to fall for her. The thrust of the film at this point becomes less about its crimes or suspense plotting than about the complicated relationships that develop between the cops, criminals and lawyers. The incestuous interweaving of the criminal elements with their pursuers results in various romantic and sexual liaisons forming and dissolving. These people are desperate for some kind of connection, even if it's just empty sex, and this is especially true of the lonely widower Mangin, who over the course of the film shifts subtly from a nasty, brutish jerk into a more complicated, even sympathetic character. It helps that Depardieu embodies both aspects of this character, with his hulking body and slumped posture, his darting eyes half-hidden beneath a shaggy mop of hair. He can be intimidating and also disarmingly gentle, almost like a shy little boy trapped in an oversize body. Marceau's Noria has virtually the opposite character arc, her initial blurry-eyed victim morphing gradually into a cold and habitually dishonest femme fatale, dropping lies without blinking. Marceau sells the transition well, and she seems especially conscious of how her character's deceit and coolness play off of her doe-eyed, cherubic beauty. But the way the film's second half treats the arcs of Noria and Mangin is somewhat disheartening and misogynist, rehabilitating the nasty, corrupt cop into a sensitive, lonely guy while his victim becomes a manipulative ice princess, cynically using men to dig her out of the trouble she's gotten into.

Still, it's to Pialat's credit that Police is ultimately more complicated than a surface description of its central relationship would suggest. Pialat's camera darts around, letting the relationships between the characters define themselves as their bodies interact with each other and with the camera's ragged motion. He cuts in for closeups, squashing faces together in cramped compositions, contrasting the lumpen Depardieu against the smooth, curving lines of Marceau or Bonnaire or Rocard. The camera frequently readjusts in small, barely noticeable ways, jigging slightly to the left, zooming in or out, as though refining the relationships within each frame, highlighting or eliding certain details through its minute adjustments. The camera's rough movements — it seems to be settling on its framings only after much trial-and-error experimentation — complements the raw, naturalistic acting of the cast. As always, Pialat's work seems to be tapping into deep, primal emotions, increasingly letting the film's genre conceits fade away into the background as the director focuses his camera with glaring intensity on the nastiness and ugliness of these people who are searching for something better even as they, almost unconsciously, hurt and betray one another. And the real betrayals here are not the noirish double-crosses involving bags of money and drugs — these plots are resolved, counter to expectations, with conversation and minimal bloodshed — but the painful, emotional betrayals of love and desire and human connections. This is a police drama where knife or gunshot wounds are much easier to deal with than the deeper emotional and psychological scars hidden within.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Fantômas: In the Shadow of the Guillotine/Juve Versus Fantômas

The pulp fiction villain Fantômas was one of the early cinema's first great criminal figures, as depicted in the famed five-film serial directed by Louis Feuillade. The first film in the series was Fantômas: In the Shadow of the Guillotine, which established the titular bandit and criminal (played in all five films by René Navarre) as well as his adversary, Inspector Juve (Edmund Breon), both of them taken from a popular series of novels of the time. Fantômas is a master of disguise, as hinted at in the opening montage, which fades between several different mugshot-like portraits of the villain in various guises and false beards. This hour-long opening chapter of the serial depicts Fantômas robbing and murdering, scheming with the Lady Beltham (Renée Carl) to kill her husband, and presumably take his money, too, though this is never spelled out. The interesting thing about Fantômas is that his crimes rarely seem to have any overriding motive; he's in it for the money, yes, but more than that he just seems to get a kick out of doing evil things for their own sake. But the clever Juve is on the trail, and with the help of his friend, the reporter Jérôme Fandor (Georges Melchior), he is soon able to apprehend Fantômas, sending him to prison to await execution.

The second half of the film is thus dedicated to Fantômas' plan to escape from prison and his deadly fate. Interestingly, Feuillade more or less places the audience in a position of identification, not with Juve, but with Fantômas himself. With the criminal caught and sent to jail halfway through the picture, this can't be a typical police mystery where the audience is rooting for the detective to catch the criminal and solve the case. Once the case is solved, the big question becomes: how is Fantômas going to escape? It's a foregone conclusion that he will escape, that he'll live to rob and kill again another day, so the suspense is simply all about seeing how he'll do it, what clever plan he'll come up with. The plan turns out to be a good one, not necessarily in terms of its logic (which is non-existent), but in terms of the way its convoluted mechanics play out on screen. With the help of his accomplice Lady Beltham, Fantômas lures the actor Valgrand (Volbert), who is playing Fantômas in a stage re-enactment of his crimes and punishment, to appear at a house near the prison in his performance costume. Once there, he is substituted for Fantômas and sent to a rendezvous with the guillotine while the master criminal makes his escape. Juve saves the man at the last minute and vows to pursue Fantômas from then on. The film's final scene is its best: Juve, in his study, has a vision of his adversary, fading into view in the corner of the room, dressed in a top hat with a domino mask across his eyes, taunting the inspector to chase him down.

Feuillade's aesthetic is simple and direct, very much of its time. His camera set-ups are of course static, and even stagey. With the exception of a few, rare closeups to highlight an object (like Fantômas' clever calling cards, which appear blank at first before his name fades into view), the film is staged entirely in tableau-like medium shots, with all the action playing out for each scene within a single room, from a steady, head-on angle. Given the limitations of the cameras of the time, Feuillade often composed in depth, using his static shots to his advantage. An automobile parked alongside the curb is shot from a skewed angle that accentuates the sidewalk stretching away into the distance, calling attention to the man walking towards the car, who will prove to be important. Later, when Lady Beltham goes to watch Valgrand's performance as Fantômas, the scene is shot from her booth in the back of the theater, with the stage itself framed, like a cinema screen within the screen, by the boundaries of her booth. The multiple levels achieved within this shot are striking: the cinema audience watches someone else, who's watching another audience that's watching a play.

These layered, deep-focus compositions are the most interesting aspect of this first chapter in the Fantômas serial. The action here is slow and drawn-out, and the staging of some scenes — like Fantômas' first robbery, at a hotel — are awkward and clumsy, making the dashing villain seem very amateurish indeed. This installment mainly just sets up the characters and situations that would be exploited throughout the remainder of the series.

Already with the serial's second chapter, Juve Versus Fantômas, the pieces seem to be more firmly in place, and the action more elaborate and thrilling. Curiously enough, the story here is also more rambling and incoherent, often threatening to fall apart completely, as though Fantômas himself had forgotten what his plot was all about. A dead body appears, supposed to be Lady Beltham, but apparently not since she is alive later; in any event, the corpse is quickly forgotten. Instead, Fantômas plots to get a large sum of money from a businessman, although this too is unceremoniously dropped in the latter half of the film. Basically, this hour-long film is a string of inventive set pieces, in which Fantômas engages in a duel of wits and brawn against the combined forces of Juve and Fandor.

There's an exciting action sequence in which Fantômas and his gang of thieves hold up a train, uncoupling the last car in order to facilitate their getaway and trigger a horrible collision to eliminate any witnesses. Feuillade stages this by fluidly blending together model shots and images taken aboard a real moving train, and there's a propulsive rhythm to the editing during this scene that belies the static nature of the individual shots. Feuillade manages to convey the motion and energy of the trains without even moving the camera once. Even better is a shootout at a wine barreling plant, where Fantômas' hoods are hiding out in a large field of wine barrels, popping up sporadically between the rows to trade shots with Juve and Fandor. The whole thing is set up like a carnival shooting game, and Feuillade plays it for near-slapstick humor without ever dissipating the sense of danger. Feuillade likes to play with the entirety of the frame, often enlivening his static shots with bits of business tucked away in all the layers from foreground to background. In a scene at a nightclub where Juve and Fandor confront Fantômas' girl Josephine (Yvette Andréyor), the frame is packed with activity and small jokes, distractions at the edges or in the extreme foreground, like the drunk guy who keeps nodding off to sleep in the corner of the frame. Finally, there's a rousing concluding set piece at Lady Beltham's abandoned mansion, where the police track down Fantômas, who avoids them through some clever hiding spots. The whole thing closes with a fiery cliffhanger, a teaser for the next episode.

With this second film, the pace of Feuillade's storytelling picks up a bit — though it's still often plodding by modern standards — and there's a lot of fun in watching Fantômas and Juve match wits. This installment places the inspector on an equal footing with his adversary, as indicated by both the title and the opening montage, in which Fantômas' line-up of disguises is followed by a similar introduction for Juve. This film solidifies the series' mania for dressing up and switching identities. Now even the cops get in on the fun, putting on fake beards and disguises in an effort to keep up with their enemy. Identities become fluid and temporary. Fantômas' favorite trick is changing while he's out of view, either in an elevator or in the back of a motor car, becoming a different person in the time it takes him to get from one place to another. And in the finale, he very nearly becomes nobody, donning a form-fitting black costume and mask that turns him into an iconic, mysterious phantom.

Where the Green Ants Dream

Werner Herzog's Where the Green Ants Dream is an oddity even in the filmography of a director who has more or less made nothing but oddities of various kinds. It's an elliptical, mystically infused tale of a confrontation between a tribe of Australian aborigines and a mining company that wants to drill and blast on land that the aborigines consider sacred. It is, they tell the mining company's representatives, the place "where the green ants dream," and if this place is disturbed and the ants are no longer able to dream, it will be a disaster for the entire world. Needless to say, the company is not overly concerned, and immediately begins trying to figure out how to go ahead with their mining anyway, and how to get the aborigines out of the way with the least fuss. They try bribes, but when these are rejected they drag the tribe into court, where there's little doubt how the establishment will decide, with the Commonwealth of Australia itself lining up on the side of the mining company.

It is, of course, equally obvious where Herzog's sympathies lie. His depiction of the aborigines sometimes draws on the "magical negro" cliché, but he does seem to see these people as genuinely spiritual and good and noble. There is little condescension in his vision of aboriginal life: Herzog, with his complex relationship to the natural world and his fascination for man's confrontations with wildness, has great respect for these people, who seem to understand things in a deeper, more spiritual way. It's the whites in the film who are lost, struggling to understand, their minds a confused jumble. The mining company's head geologist at this location, Lance Hackett (Bruce Spence), gets the brunt of Herzog's satirical wit. Hackett is plagued by metaphysical doubts and torturous theoretical thinking. He ties his mind into knots trying to grasp the nature of an ever-expanding universe, trying to come to terms with Earth's place in the vastness of space. The aborigines cut through these kind of knots with the simplicity and finality of Alexander severing the Gordian Knot: they say that the whites ask too many questions, that they don't understand things on an intuitive level. This is why the aboriginal leaders Miliritbi (Wandjuk Marika) and Dayipu (Roy Marika) seem so calm, so tranquil, why they don't expend their energy in long, rambling discourses. When they speak, they are direct and to the point, in their minimal and heavily accented English, describing their ideas in the simplest possible terms. Hackett, meanwhile, struggles to communicate to them the necessity of the mining company's operations, finds himself unable to describe the procedures of drilling, and thinks he's being deep when he stumbles across Philosophy 101-level conundrums like "maybe everything we're seeing is an illusion."

Herzog thus depicts the confrontation between the aborigines and the whites in purely symbolic terms, as a conflict between ancient spirituality and modern commerce and civilization. The languid, hallucinatory rhythms of his images consistently reflect the former. The film opens with grainy, ragged images of a tornado forming above a desert, its black funnel rotating with the slow grace of a spinning ballerina, drawing up dust and dirt into its orbit. It's a scary, beautiful image, one that recurs towards the end of the film, its purpose utterly mysterious. Throughout the film, Herzog returns to images of mystery and strange beauty, like the sight of a green plane descending into the hazy desert, reminiscent of the similar heat-hazed images that opened his desert hallucination Fata Morgana. In one of the film's more bizarre subplots, this plane takes on a strange symbolic resonance for the aborigines, tied into a legend that's recounted to Hackett by a slightly crazed and very Herzogian etymologist who has stationed himself at a location where the Earth's magnetic field is supposedly at its most warped. This man tells Hackett about the life cycle of the green ants, sexless creatures whose mating ritual involves a massive swarm flying over the mountains, where only two individuals within the entire swarm acquire sexual characteristics and mate. The plane becomes a mechanized giant green ant, flying towards the mountains to ensure its species' continuation.

All of this is, to say the least, highly dubious as mythology or biology. Herzog reportedly invented the legend of the green ants rather than deriving it from any genuine aboriginal customs. In this respect, the film is not actually about aboriginal culture, but about Herzog's own vision of their culture, a vision informed by his own preoccupations and concerns, his ideas about nature and spirituality and progress. This gives the film a kind of schizoid looniness, with typically Herzogian characters drifting in and out of the narrative. There's an exaggeratedly racist mining company foreman (Ray Barrett) who wants to bulldoze the aborigines out of the way. A black former air force pilot (Gary Williams) is mostly drunk all the time — reflecting the miserable conditions in which these people live within their designated reservations — but still harbors dreams of getting a plane up in the air again. In an almost entirely unconnected subplot, an old woman (Colleen Clifford) wants the mining company to help her find her missing dog, who may have wandered into the caves opened up by the drilling and explosions. She sets up watch at the mouth of one of these caves with an umbrella shielding her from the sun and a wad of black, feces-textured dog food congealing in a dish beside her. She mirrors the attentive watch of the aborigines, driven by her own personal quest just as they are by their spirituality.

In a way, this is what Herzog is really getting at here. He's always been fascinated by people who possess mysterious inner motors, driving them towards obscure destinations that no one else can even see or imagine. He finds — or creates — in these aborigines a similar inner drive, a deep and ancient spiritual understanding of the world that sets them apart entirely from modern culture, even when they don the accoutrements of society. Thus, they make even familiar modern technology and comforts seem strange and alien, turning a beeping digital watch into a puzzle to be deciphered. They look uncomfortable but dignified in the modern suits they wear to court during their final confrontation with the mining company: they are clearly out of place in this context but maintain their dignity despite the unfamiliar surroundings. They are stubbornly resisting modernity, and Herzog of course respects this, respects people who are out of sync with their time and place, people who retain their essential distance from Western civilization.

Herzog's respect for these characters is refreshing, even though they always remain characters rather than genuine representatives of aboriginal culture. Herzog isn't that interested in documenting their actual culture — though he would venture into the genre of ethnographic documentaries later in the 80s and during the early 90s — but in documenting the kinds of clashes and misunderstandings that result from these encounters between Western modernity and people who represent earlier ways of living and thinking. One of the film's most poignant moments is the appearance of an aboriginal man who is described as a "mute," not because he actually can't speak, but because he is the last representative of his tribe, the last person on Earth to speak a dead language, unable to make himself understood to anyone. He nevertheless gets his moment in court from Herzog, standing up in a suit and addressing the court in a language no one else can speak, and which no one else will ever speak again after he is gone. This kind of complete separation from the modern world, a disjunction so profound that no one can bridge the gap, is what fascinates Herzog here. It is this kind of person to whom Herzog is so poetically paying tribute.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Land of the Pharaohs

During his four decades in Hollywood, Howard Hawks worked on virtually every type of picture possible within the studio system of the time. Though he is today known primarily as a director of manically fast screwball comedies or rambling, low-key Westerns, he also made musicals, proto-noirs, sci-fi and war movies, along with now-forgotten genres like racing pictures and aviation adventures. And he also made one grand historical epic, Land of the Pharaohs, a big-budget blockbuster on a truly staggering scale. On its surface, it's an odd type of film for Hawks to make, considering his usual comfort with small-scale wit and romance, his touch for handling simple stories of people interacting, forming relationships and friendships. His best and best-known films are the definition of what the critic Manny Farber appreciatively called "termite art," films where the director's aesthetic and thematic concerns gnaw away subtly beneath the surface. Land of the Pharaohs would seem to be the very opposite, a towering "white elephant" carrying its pretenses aloft and carving its themes out of tremendous stone blocks.

Indeed, the film is grand in every sense. Its epic story takes place on a level almost entirely above human concerns, taking to a bird's eye perspective from which individuals are just dots in a sea of similar dots. The film's events are set in motion by the powerful Egyptian Pharaoh Khufu (Jack Hawkins), a man who arguably sees other human beings from exactly this aloof vantage point. According to his people's customs, he is the embodiment of a god on Earth, and by divine right he is able to command his people to do nearly anything. He is beyond worldly concerns, beyond any thought of his fellow beings. What consumes him is the thought of his afterlife, the eternal rest after his death, in which he will be buried with the massive treasure he has accumulated through the bloody wars he fought while on Earth. He dedicates the final two decades of his life to the construction of an enormous and elaborate pyramid, a crypt designed with clever traps and rigged so that, upon his death, once the lid is lowered on his coffin, the pyramid will be sealed with solid stone, the great pharaoh and his treasure unreachable for grave robbers or other desecraters who would come along after he was gone. Towards this end, the Pharaoh enlists one of his prisoners, the architect Vashtar (James Robinson Justice) and his son Senta (Hawks regular Dewey Martin), to devise the pyramid's ingenious self-sealing mechanisms. In doing so, Vashtar knows that he dooms himself, but he agrees if the Pharaoh will release his people as prisoners.

The human dramas in the film are generally sketched out on a broad scale like this; motivations tend to be simplistic and characters are defined by one trait. For the Pharaoh, it's a love of power and a greed for gold, both attributes that find their match in his rebellious mistress Nellifer (Joan Collins), a proud princess who marries the Pharaoh but secretly lusts after his treasure, scheming and plotting to undo him. This is a lurid melodrama with a schematic plot, with both Hawkins and Collins turning in stark, iconic performances, their characters reduced to walking symbols. For his part, Hawks hardly seems interested in these petty human affairs. He's working on a very abstract level here, populating the film with literally thousands of extras — reportedly close to 10,000 for one scene — and dramatizing the mechanical and physical processes involved in constructing the pyramid rather than the human dramas behind the scenes. Next to the spectacle of massive slabs of stone being hauled across the desert via complicated pulley-and-crane systems, the Pharaoh's love affairs and the machinations of his mistress seem trite and inconsequential. The actual human events play out in disconnected vignettes, with large gaps of time yawning in between. In one scene, Senta is a boy; in the next, it's fifteen years later and he's grown into a man. Similarly, at one point early on the Pharaoh tells his first wife (Kerima) that he wants an heir, which might've provided another film with its driving force and drama, but this script simply presents the boy not long after, already around ten years old.

If the film's human dramas are largely inert and so elliptical as to nearly disappear, this hardly means that the film is without drama altogether. It's merely that the characters here are consistently dwarfed by the physical spectacle of the processes they set into motion. There are long sequences in which Hawks fully exploits both the long Cinemascope frame — the first time he'd shoot outside of his favored Academy ratio — and the tremendous quantity of extras he had at his disposal. The frame is frequently packed with people, thousands of them struggling through the desert sand like ants scurrying around in the dirt, hauling massive stones with ropes and complex riggings. Long trains of people and animals sprawl across the desert in dense crowds and rigidly uniform lines. Hawks always maintained an interest in documenting how real people work, and here was the ultimate subject for him, the ultimate group effort: thousands of people subjugating their identities to the will of the pharaoh in order to accomplish a demanding, impossibly complicated task of building and design. His images, remote and sweeping, strain to take in the entirety of this bustle of activity within a single frame. There's an epic grandeur to these images, a sense of large-scale work and action that Hawks had only ever approached before in the exhilarating cattle drive sequences from Red River. This film's pyramid-building scenes lack that same excitement, since Hawks proves equally adept at capturing the drudgery of this work, the slow process by which the Egyptian workers, initially happy to be working for their Pharaoh in this way, begin to wear down, to become bitter and sluggish, driven on only by the pounding of the work drums and the crack of the whip.

These sequences reach their fruition in the film's great final set piece, following the Pharaoh's death, when the mechanisms that will seal the pyramid's tomb are at last set in motion. This is a harrowing sequence, staged from a perspective at the heart of the tomb: all around the interior of the pyramid, various stone slabs slam into place with a crushing finality, accompanied by a reverberating and terrible clamor. It's a claustrophobic nightmare of being locked up behind impenetrable stone walls, buried alive, a horror worthy of Poe. Hawks accentuates the geometry of the pyramid's labyrinthine interior, the elegant interlocking structures that come together once Vashtar's brilliant design is triggered. Stone slabs crawl across the frame, slowly blotting out the lines of sight through the pyramid's interior, closing off all exits, each door closing accompanied by that final sinister thump, the sound of another escape being closed off. This sequence traps the audience along with those at the pyramid's center, the retainers and workers who are sealed up with their dead master.

The grim automated processes of this final scene are indicative of the macroscopic interest Hawks takes in this story. His grandly effective mise en scéne comes alive whenever he's charting the hefting of a stone block into its position within the pyramid's architecture, or visualizing the vast hordes of slaves working on this massive construction project. The more human scale of the story fails to advance beyond clichéd melodrama. Moreover, the Hollywood convention of casting white actors as Egyptians yields the distracting and uncomfortable spectacle of Joan Collins made up in brownface makeup that darkens her skin to a strange glossy orangish hue.

Equally distracting is the overbearing music, and especially the periodic outbursts of singing, clapping and chanting. The Baptist fervor of the music turns quite a few of the early scenes into weird approximations of Christian masses rather than Egyptian rituals; one almost expects the chanting Egyptians to shout out "Hallelujah!" Indeed, these early scenes sometimes seem like subtle commentaries on religion in general, slyly suggesting that all religions, with their convoluted, fanciful conceptions of the afterlife, are equally deluded. Hawks has the most sympathy for the pragmatic architect Vashtar, who, though obviously modeled on the Jewish people, has a skeptical detachment from all this fascination with the afterlife and would much rather live for the present than the future. It would seem that, within the overbearing façades of this "white elephant" of a film, Hawks the termite was nicking away at the stone edifices of his creation, subtly tweaking the solemn religiosity of his protagonists and their vain desires for immortality.

Friday, April 24, 2009


[This review of a largely unknown and unavailable Jean-Luc Godard short is presented here as a plea that The Criterion Collection should include this film as an extra on one of their forthcoming Godard DVDs. It would be a very timely and appropriate inclusion for any of the Godard films that Criterion currently plans to release. If you're interested in seeing this film, write to them and tell them about it.]

Anticipation was Jean-Luc Godard's contribution to the multi-director anthology film The Oldest Profession, a collection of shorts on the theme of prostitution, with contributions by Claude Autant-Lara, Philippe de Broca and other minor French filmmakers of the time. Needless to say, Godard's segment stands out. He filmed his contribution in late 1966, not long after finishing 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, with which it shares some commonalities in theme and style. But the film Anticipation resembles more than anything else is Alphaville, Godard's futuristic take on a society that has forgotten about love. In this short, the space traveler John Demetrius (Jacques Charrier) takes a break from his interstellar journey on Earth, where the solicitous planetary government — a Soviet-American alliance, confirming that this is the distant future — provides prostitutes for all travelers who request them.

The film thus opens with a wry sequence in which Demetrius sits in an airport lounge thumbing through a catalogue of pornographic pictures, in order to choose his companion for the night. Across from him sits a young female traveler, looking through a catalogue of her own for a male prostitute. The two travelers keep casting sly sidelong glances at one another, as though appraising the other in relation to the images in the magazine. It's a sharp commentary on the increasing distance between people in a culture dominated by images, in which actual flesh-and-blood human relationships are forced to compete with glossy simulacra and media fantasies. This becomes even more apparent in the rest of the film, in which Demetrius interacts with a pair of prostitutes, neither of whom can quite satisfy him. The first girl (Marilù Tolo) is pliant and willing, stripping for him in a businesslike way and preparing for bed. But he discovers that she is unable, or unwilling, to talk, to murmur even a word to him, instead lying there inert, another incarnation of the robotic women from Alphaville.

Enter Anna Karina, Godard's ex-wife in her last role with the director (even though the feature Made in USA is usually given that credit, evidence of how sadly forgotten this great short is). Here she's playing the prostitute Natasha, who's provided to Demetrius after his complaints about the first girl. Unlike her predecessor, Natasha can talk, but it soon emerges, to Demetrius' consternation, that that's all she's able to do. It seems that the division of labor has been applied to prostitutes, who are now super-specialized so that some of them are skilled in the physical acts of love, and some of them are skilled in expressing love verbally. No one in this futuristic society brings the two acts together as a unified whole, since love itself has been thoroughly suppressed, presumably along with the other emotions. This is a witty premise, and Godard builds a very flippant conceptual sci-fi piece around it. One of the best moments is the bizarre and hilarious sequence in which Natasha and Demetrius spray one another's mouths with water from an aerosol can, a fetishized sexual display in a culture where such mechanized rituals based around consumer products provide the only possible connections between people.

In fact, the alienation of people from each other is the film's key theme, as is the increasing compartmentalization of lives: love and sex are separated, conversation and meaning amputated from one another. Natasha speaks, but she does not mean what she says. Without deeper feelings behind them, her words are empty signifiers, suggesting a love that simply isn't there. For Godard, about to plunge at the end of the 60s into an in-depth consideration of semiotics and language in films like Le gai savoir and his work with the Dziga Vertov Group, this is a hint of things to come, the fascination with the relationships between language and meaning, between gestures and ideas.

It was also meant to be a glorious formal experiment, although Godard's intentions have often not been preserved in presentations of this film. The original American release version was a dubbed and censored travesty coated with an orange filter, while the only current way of seeing the film (sourced from an unsubtitled Japanese DVD) provides an uncensored and unaltered monochrome print that nevertheless does not preserve the radical formal interventions that Godard intended. The film as he originally conceived it was to have been printed with an alternating set of colored filters layered over the image, much as he had used during the infamous Brigitte Bardot nude scene that opened Contempt (this would certainly explain the female narrator who periodically intones colors as though signaling a filter change). Furthermore, Godard apparently planned to manipulate the images so that the characters would often appear as blurred, indistinct shapes, further accentuating the alienation and disconnections of the narrative.

Even in the monochrome version of the film, Godard's formal interest in this material is preserved in the final moments, in which Natasha and Demetrius tentatively rediscover the lost art of the kiss, which is both communication and lovemaking and thus sidesteps Natasha's limitations against performing physical acts of love. It's a wonderful conceit, on a par with the rediscovery of the words "I love you" as the key to Alphaville's finale. Godard sees hope and possibility in communication and genuine interpersonal connections, and he celebrates this connection by briefly strobing to full-color shots of the couple kissing and then a closeup of Karina smiling shyly at the camera as the film ends. On the soundtrack, the tranquil, robotic female narrator finally loses her cool, desperately repeating, "negative! negative!" In one of Godard's chilliest works, this kiss is another profound romantic gesture, maybe his last until rediscovering sensuality in the 80s: love conquers totalitarian control, and a kiss proves a more powerful form of communication than any government propaganda.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Keetje Tippel

Keetje Tippel, based on the life of the prostitute, artists' model and socialist author Neel Doff, is a typically bracing, emotionally complex melodrama from director Paul Verhoeven. As is often the case with Verhoeven, he's working within the confines of a familiar genre, the period drama in this case, and even within the structure of a familiar story: the commoner who aspires to a higher level and gets transformed into a member of high society. It's a Cinderella story, in other words, and one of the film's characters even refers to the titular heroine Keetje (Monique van de Ven) as Cinderella. She's one daughter in a large and miserably poor family who have moved to Amsterdam in the hopes of finding better opportunities. But once there, the family continues to struggle, living in a horrible, rat-infested house that floods when it rains, with each of them trying without much luck to find and hold a steady job. Keetje's father (Jan Blasser) is a cheery, expansive guy, obviously a decent sort, but he's unable to keep a job for very long, and deeply feels the guilt of being unable to provide for his family. Keetje's bratty, lascivious sister Mina (Hannah de Leeuwe) helps provide for the family by working in a brothel — at least until she gets kicked out for drinking too much — but Keetje is too proud to sell her body, and tries to get more honest work.

This proves not to be easy. One of Verhoeven's most consistent themes is the humiliation and degradation that society heaps on the innocent and pure-hearted, and Keetje cannot escape this fate. She is a beautiful girl, but this only makes it harder for her: everywhere she goes, men want her, lust after her, and look at her poverty as a vulnerability they can exploit. She tries to work in a factory, washing clothes in poison chemicals that burn her hands and throat, but the horrible conditions there, coupled with the antagonism of the other women, quickly drive her away. A stint in a hat shop lasts a little longer, but she's not much happier. Her attempts to show some pride in her handiwork, to engage with her work as something more than a dumb drone, are stifled by her bosses, who don't want creativity. This is textbook Marxist commentary. Keetje is alienated from the results of her labor, forbidden from taking credit for what she's made with her own two hands, treated as simply an inhuman cog in an assembly line. Worse, the shop's owner has her stay late one night and, predictably, rapes her, a scene staged with a typically lurid Verhoeven touch: Keetje, always playful and whimsical, is making shadow puppets on the wall when her play is interrupted by a phallic shadow as the boss, naked and lustful, enters the room.

Keetje's humiliations only begin here, but throughout her often miserable adventures, she retains an unquenchable thirst for dignity and pleasure, and an indomitable spirit that never gives in. A great deal of the credit for this wonderful heroine must rest with van de Ven, an actress who Verhoeven had previously discovered for his film Turkish Delight. She has an impish smile and bright eyes, a waif's face that gives her a girlish, innocent appeal. It is obvious from the first moment she appears on screen that she does not belong in rags, filthy and laboring in a factory; she's too bright and charming, too kind-hearted. She wants the best for her family, and tries to protect them from predators, though it turns out that they mostly do not want protection and respond with spite. But when her family pushes her into prostitution, with her mother hovering outside during her visits with johns, waiting to snap up the money afterward, Keetje does not hesitate to finally abandon them when she gets a chance. She falls in with a crowd of painters and socialists and intellectuals, among them the banker Hugo (Rutger Hauer) and the socialist agitator Andre (Eddie Brugman). These men are able to raise Keetje out of her poverty, giving her fine clothes and, in Hugo's case, moving her into his house.

But Hugo, as it turns out, is actually only a few rungs up the social ladder from Keetje, and the strain of supporting her in a grand lifestyle proves to wear on him — he eventually abandons her for the promise of marrying his boss' daughter, moving up in status and wealth through this match. The film is continually driving home the ways in which poverty and class insecurity affect people even at the level of their one-on-one relationships. In this film, and in these people's lives, class is not an abstract concept, not the proletariat rhetoric of the Communists, but a concrete factor in everyday reality. Class and status are what they must escape, what they must struggle against in order to eat, in order to sustain their families. Life at the bottom is brutal and harsh, as Keetje knows well. She is beaten by the police for stealing bread for her hungry little brother. She is sexually exploited whenever she simply tries to find decent work for herself. Her family seems to grow every time she sees them, inexplicably gathering more children, which suggests that either Verhoeven is elliptically passing over long periods of time, or he's employing a subtle surrealist touch to emphasize the hopelessness of Keetje's family. Every day their family seems to be larger and harder to feed. So Keetje knows all about class, and knows about it from firsthand experience rather than conceptual reading. When Andre and his friends are admiring a painting, praising the pride and nobility of the way the workers are depicted, she corrects them, saying that the workers aren't proud but hungry.

And Keetje is hungry, too, and determined to get what she wants. In one of the film's best scenes, Andre and Hugo take her out to dinner at a fancy French restaurant, where she is oblivious about such niceties as how to order and how to use her utensils. This is a typical scene for this type of movie, a cliché even, but van de Ven plays it with such exuberant energy that it becomes fresh and exciting all over again. With her toothy smiles, her awkward way of shoving her spoon all the way into her broad, rubbery mouth, her easygoing adaptation to any circumstances, she's charming and fun even when she's being somewhat oafish and silly. She manages to make even her greed charming: she's been denied everything for so long that she feels no shame about taking what she can get, when she can get it. Verhoeven has great sympathy and affection for this woman, great respect for her refusal to be cowed or broken. She takes everything that the world can throw at her and simply shakes it off, smiles, moves on.

This is a quality that Verhoeven prizes in his protagonist, a kind of paradoxical joie de vivre in spite of the harsh conditions she faces. The film itself reflects this appreciation for the finer things in its hazy, brightly colored imagery, with many of the exterior scenes seemingly shot at the "magic hour," the many-hued glory of the sky hovering just between day and night. This is a vibrant, powerful film, frequently difficult to watch in its exacting portrait of lower class degradation. But the purity and grace of its heroine, and the fluid visual style of Verhoeven, make it a bittersweet delight as well.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is an absorbing, stylish character study, a film overflowing with complex emotions: love, loss, aging, friendship and betrayal, the confusions of political change, but most of all nostalgia, an aching, bittersweet nostalgia for a more innocent time that may never even have existed outside of the movies. Nevertheless, the film's titular Colonel Blimp — the nickname of Clive Candy (Roger Livesey), who matures during the film from a volatile young soldier into an aging, rotund, well-respected general — is indubitably a representative of that more innocent time. He is an embodiment of the English gentleman, with all that entails, for both good and bad. He is stiff and elitist, with a great respect for rules and procedures, for protocol. He's condescending and imperialist, unquestioning of his own country in all that they do. But he's also kind-hearted and generous, the kind of man who will fight a duel and then become best friends with his opponent afterward.

This is exactly what happens in the film's first extended segment, a reminiscence of Candy's time in Berlin during the early 1900s, where he has gone to defend his country's honor over accusations that the British had committed atrocities during the Boer War (which, of course, they did, though Candy doesn't know this and the film is politically unable to acknowledge it). Candy means well, but his blundering nearly causes an international incident when he, more or less inadvertently, insults the entire German army. The Germans pick an officer from their ranks to fight a duel against Candy, and when the two men wound each other, they are sent to the same hospital to recuperate. There, Candy becomes fast friends with the officer, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), despite the other man's lack of English. They communicate mostly through the lovely English governess Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr), who in the process falls in love with Theo. This is the film's most detailed and evocative segment, and for good reason, since the events here will haunt the remainder of Candy's long life. His friendship with Theo will last, despite long absences when the two men do not see each other, and despite even the period of hostility when they fight on different sides during World War I. But Candy will be even more deeply scarred by his unrequited and, indeed, never pursued love for Edith, who stays behind in Berlin to marry Theo. Candy, always a gentleman, smiles broadly and congratulates his friend when he learns of the couple's engagement, but he is hurt nonetheless, and he returns to London feeling a great loss, a loss that will affect him for the rest of his life. He will continue looking for Edith everywhere he goes, and will find at least two more incarnations of her (both also played by Kerr).

This romantic, melancholy story is simply one thread weaving through Candy's long and eventful life. In between incidents, the film uses documents and objects to mark the passage of time: newspaper reports, photographs, letters, and especially the accumulation of animal heads in Candy's den, each one dated and stamped with the location where he shot it. Various deaths are noted in simple two-line obituaries, the entirety of a life reduced to a platitude in a newspaper — the exact opposite of this film's sprawling, generous storytelling. Even so, these interludes sometimes seem to elide too much. Candy's long and presumably happy marriage to Edith look-alike Barbara Wynne (Kerr again) is treated very superficially, and his wife's character is never allowed to develop very much beyond her resemblance to his first wife. One wonders if this is intentional, reflecting Candy's essential disinterest in her beyond her appearance. One gets this sense especially from a late scene, after her death, in which the much older Candy proudly shows off her portrait to Theo, mechanically repeating how much she looked like Edith.

In a way, though, it hardly matters, since despite the romance the real central relationship of the film is the one between Candy and Theo, who reconnect as old soldiers when the latter flees to England, escaping from the Nazi horrors in his own country. The relationship between these two men is complex, woven together with politics and with their mutual love for the same woman. One of the film's most interesting uses of time is the way it condenses the period of time between the two World Wars, so that Theo's departure from London as a defeated P.O.W. after World War I is swiftly followed by his return to London many years later as a refugee from the Nazis. In the first scene, he leaves offended by Candy's patronizing attitude towards him, and he angrily tells his fellow German soldiers about the weakness and naivete of Britain — an ominous suggestion of the post-WWI bitterness and bad feelings that would thrust the Nazis into power. By leaping over the intervening years, the film powerfully depicts how Theo's initial bitterness over losing the war had given way to a more resigned melancholy, as well as a hatred of the evil forces taking control within his own country.

This film was made at the height of World War II, so it should be no surprise that it contains elements of anti-German war propaganda. What's interesting is how subtly this material is incorporated into the narrative, and how sophisticated and twisty the film's messages about war and nationalism can be. Candy is a naïve figure, convinced of his own rightness and that of his country: he believes in fighting wars according to rules, maintaining strict decorum and gentlemanly conduct even in the midst of combat. A repeated theme throughout the film is Candy's obliviousness, his outdated outlook on the world, which persists even as those around him increasingly argue that they must respond to the aggressions of their enemies not as gentlemen but as unrestricted fighters who will do anything to win. One of the film's most interesting questions, then, is whether it's Candy or the filmmakers who are actually naïve — or if they just expect audiences to be naïve. The film repeatedly characterizes British fighting methods as decent and noble and pure while the methods of their enemies are characterized as dirty and cowardly. Beyond the obvious contradiction — the quaint fantasy of fighting a "decent war," as though so much bloodshed could ever be anything but horrible — this mentality willfully glosses over all sorts of historical facts about British warfare preceding World War I, which could hardly always be described as "noble."

Candy doesn't realize that his ideal of a gentleman's war is a fantasy. There are hints in the film of darker realities — one scene cuts away before a scarred soldier begins interrogating a group of German prisoners, but there's little doubt that things got ugly after the fade to black — but it's obvious that there couldn't be any more tacit acknowledgment of these kinds of things, not in a wartime propaganda drama. For the most part, this is a brightly colored Technicolor fantasia of Candy's worldview, nostalgic for a time when wars could be fought with honor. But as nostalgia goes, this is especially sumptuous and skillfully executed nostalgia, with gorgeous studio-bound Technicolor imagery, lushly painted matte backdrops standing in for sunsets and bombed-out wartime locales. The obvious artificiality of it all helps create the impression of war as a clean, honorable affair, a game between gentlemen, who set start and end times, in between which they bomb one another. The beautiful, textural cinematography (by George Périnal, with future Powell/Pressburger cinematographer Jack Cardiff assisting) is suited equally to sweeping, colorful vistas and enveloping closeups.

One of the best of these is an extended shot of Theo as a much older man, a long, carefully held closeup during which he tearfully recounts the story of his stay at the hospital in Berlin, where he met both his future wife and the friend who would remain his one constant throughout his life. The camera stoically studies his face, now lined and worn with age, his features softened by his bittersweet memories of the past, of this time when he was so happy. The rich emotions of this scene are deepened by the immersive quality of the closeup, and by the fact that these characters have grown and matured over the course of the film, aging slowly into their older incarnations. The makeup used to age them sometimes makes them look mummified, caked in white paint, but the subtlety and warmth of the performances always shine through. Candy could easily have been the oversized caricature implied by the film's title, a walking symbol of British obliviousness and elitist condescension. And he is, to some extent. But he's also a sympathetic, richly drawn character, a man left behind by history, a man whose private ideals are increasingly out of sync with both his nation and the world, if they were ever in sync with anything beyond his own fantasies to begin with.