Friday, August 31, 2012

Jungle Fever

Considering Spike Lee's career-long examination of various American attitudes about race and culture, it's not surprising that at some point he should take a look at the concept of inter-racial relationships. Many of Lee's films have thesis-like ideas at their core, from Bamboozled's satirical dissection of the history of blackface and the issue of race in the entertainment industry, to School Daze's inquiry into divisions within the black community, to the consideration of black/white romance in Jungle Fever. Like so many of Lee's films, Jungle Fever fearlessly looks at race head-on, and like so many of his films, it's messy, provocative, awkward, contradictory, uneven — and unevenly acted — stylistically eclectic, and (over)loaded with ideas. It's never a smooth viewing experience, but then it's clearly not meant to be; its barbs are there to get caught on, to provoke viewers of any race into thinking about ingrained prejudices and the ways in which the history of race in America continues to dominate current-day interactions and relationships between races.

The narrative of Jungle Fever skips all over the place a bit sloppily, but basically it's about the relationship between the black architect Flip (Wesley Snipes) and his white Italian secretary Angie (Anabella Sciorra). Flip is initially antagonistic — he'd wanted his white bosses to hire a black secretary for him — but one night, working late in the moodily lit office, the pair suddenly develop a romantic rapport that leads to a night of passionate sex, even though Flip is in fact married, and seemingly very happily, to Drew (Lonette McKee). There's no explaining attraction or lust, and Flip and Angie simply give in, with predictably problematic results.

Lee places the emphasis on the reactions to this affair more than the affair itself, and at times the film seems to keep forgetting about Flip and Angie for long periods of time. Instead, he detours into scenes with Angie's former boyfriend Paulie (John Turturro) and his crude Italian buddies hanging around a convenience store, expressing racist attitudes while simultaneously lusting after the pretty, educated black woman who visits the store every morning and is friendly with Paulie. Much of the film turns around these kinds of nakedly polemical scenes, shoving character and narrative into the background for scenes like the one where Drew and her friends discuss men and skin color, Lee's camera circling relentlessly around the room while the dialogue, though apparently improvised by the actresses themselves, hamfistedly delivers these ideas.

All of Lee's films have this dichotomy, this tendency to interrupt the narrative for scenes of straightforward political and racial preaching, but Jungle Fever is probably one of his most unbalanced films in that respect: it's not as straightforwardly satirical and polemical as a film like Bamboozled, so its preaching sits uncomfortably with the moments that are more about character or narrative. A prime example is the scene where Flip and Angie visit his parents (Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis), only to have his reverend father deliver a long, to-the-camera address on the history of slavery, miscegenation, and the rape of female slaves by white masters. What could and maybe should be a character scene, about the discomfort of the couple with the reverend's distaste for their relationship, instead becomes just another of Lee's immersion-breaking history lessons, and the central relationship gets shifted more and more to the fringes of the film.

There's still some interesting material here, especially in the way Lee shows the couple receiving prejudice and judgment from all quarters, in both Flip's black Harlem community and Angie's Italian Bensonhurst community. One of Lee's recurring themes is the way that blacks and whites are trapped by race and by the racist history of this country, fated by culture and history to play certain roles, to repeat certain mistakes over and over again. There's some uncertainty here about just how real Angie and Flip's relationship is, regardless of race, but race ensures that they don't stand a chance; it's just too big a barrier to get around. Flip's sudden voicing, late in the film, of prejudiced attitudes about mixed-race children is hard to justify narratively or in terms of his character up to that point, but thematically it makes perfect sense: these ideas, ingrained as they are, are exceptionally difficult to escape, passed down from generation to generation and running through entire cultures, both white and black.

The specter of race makes it impossible to judge this relationship like any other relationship, impossible even to think of Flip's adultery as just adultery rather than a betrayal of his entire race. In that sense, the way the film keeps getting bogged down in polemics and theoretical discussions of race and history is part of the point: these issues are so tangled and complex that this story can't just be a story.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Steamboat Bill, Jr.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. is another of Buster Keaton's absolute best films, a brilliant masterpiece of physical comedy with a premise perfectly tailored to Keaton's penchant for death-defying stunts, blending humor and action to such a degree that those two aspects of his work become inextricable. Keaton's physical feats of daring at the climax of this film represent some of his best stuntwork, both irresistibly funny and shocking in the very real sense of danger that's continually present in these obviously carefully timed and designed stunts, where just a second or an inch off could've meant disaster for the actor. It's obviously Keaton's very precise, utterly logical genius driving these stunts and gags, which is why it makes no difference that he's not the credited director; it's Keaton's unmistakeable intelligence at work here, not that of credited director Charles Reisner.

The film has a quite poignant thematic emphasis on fathers and sons, as Keaton plays an effete, intellectual college kid who tries to impress his tough, masculine riverboat captain father Steamboat Bill (Ernest Torrence), who he is meeting for the first time. When Bill first realizes that Keaton is his son, Keaton is prancing around with a violin in a manner that's obviously meant to be a parody of homosexuality — he's trying to quiet a crying baby with his antics, but his father doesn't realize this and simply looks at this spectacle as the first manifestation of his son's unmanly ways. In his beret and fancy clothes, with a wispy mustache that earns the withering contempt of his father, Keaton recalls the inept snobs of some of his earlier films, though here he's not a son of privilege. The subtext is Bill's desire that his son — even a son that he hasn't seen since he was a baby — should be an echo and a mirror of the father, hence the comedy of the scene in which the captain walks around the train station trying to figure out which man is his son. At one point, he mistakenly walks up to a black man in a gag that recalls Keaton's mistaken proposal to a black woman in Seven Chances, both jokes essentially reflecting some skittishness and subtextual discomfort with the prospect of inter-racial romances.

The heart of the film is this troubled father/son dynamic, with the father disappointed in the son he'd hoped would be a rugged tough guy like his dad, and the son who just wants to impress his dad without having to discard his entire persona. Keaton fits in better, it seems, with his father's rival, J.J. King (Tom McGuire), who runs a much more modern and fancy steamboat operation, and whose daughter Kitty (Marion Byron) is Keaton's girlfriend, much to the chagrin of both the rival fathers. This Romeo and Juliet tale of forbidden romance provides the impetus for some of the best jokes, as Keaton keeps trying to sneak away to see Kitty under the watchful and disapproving eyes of both fathers. There are countless inventive and funny sequences here, particularly an extended bit of Keaton keeping various clothes hidden under his bedrobe so he can sneak out. Byron's also a dynamic, adorable presence here, one of Keaton's best leading ladies, her cutesy energy and almost Chaplin-esque shuffling walk a nice contrast to Keaton's infamous stoicism and restraint.

Keaton has a way of enlivening even minor scenes with subtle little gestural touches, like the way he discreetly leans in to smell Kitty's hair while she's talking to him, or the way, after he's knocked out by the sheriff and thrown into the back of a car, with only his legs sticking up, he casually crosses his legs as the car takes his supposedly unconscious body to the hospital. Also hilarious is the scene where he tries to bust his father out of prison with some tools baked into a massive loaf of bread, a scene in which Keaton's whimsically pantomimes various hand signals for escape to his father while the sheriff's back is turned.

The peak of the film, though, is unquestionably the lengthy climax, one of the best of Keaton's typically frenzied final act extravaganzas, as a storm sweeps through the town, with Keaton wandering dazed and baffled through one dangerous situation after another. This whole sequence is a marvel of split-second timing and perfectly realized stunts, with whole buildings and houses falling down or blowing away with Keaton right next to them, the town being torn apart all around him, with him as the mostly untouched center of the storm, always just in the right spot to avoid otherwise certain death. Most famously, at one point the whole front wall of a house falls down and Keaton survives because he's standing precisely in the spot where the window lands. There are countless more similarly startling moments, like a house that lands on top of him and then collapses as soon as he steps out of its door, or a wall that falls as he steps through its door. At one point, he wanders onto a theatrical stage, where he pulls a chain that causes him to disappear into a trapdoor. He then tries to dive into a lake that turns out to be a painted backdrop, a realist echo of the magical dream at the center of Sherlock Jr.; the theater isn't as permeable to magical intrusions as the cinema's screen.

As these incidents pile up and the wind blows, Keaton's unceasing physical artistry becomes absolutely hypnotic, especially during the daring chain of rescues that caps off the film, with Keaton athletically leaping from one level to another on the steamboat and rigging a series of mechanical contrivances of the kind he's always loved. His bravado wins over everyone — his father, Kitty's father, and Kitty herself — so that his character wins the admiration he so intensely desires even as Keaton himself wins the admiration of any audience witnessing the very real stunts and gags he executes so flawlessly here.

Monday, August 27, 2012

I Know Where I'm Going!

Moving, romantic, and utterly magical, I Know Where I'm Going! is one of the great collaborations of the Archers, writer-directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. This is a delightful romance of the Scottish isles, totally charming and sweet, shot with an eye for the natural poetry of the land, the beauty of sea and sky even in their darkest, most threatening moments. This charming love story concerns the determined, materialistic Joan (Wendy Hiller), who knows precisely where she's going in life. As the opening credits whimsically show, she's wanted things ever since she was a baby, and she's always gotten them eventually, thirsting for silk stockings and fine dinners. She has plans for her life, and she's about to fulfill them by marrying the wealthy industrial magnate Bellinger. She's traveling to the Scottish island of Killoran for her wedding, but when a bad storm strands her for several days on the nearby island of Mull, she begins falling in love with Torquil (Roger Livesey), a local lord who's rich in titles but poor in cash, something that is decidedly not in her plans.

There are signs even before this that Joan isn't necessarily as happy as she pretends to be with her well-planned life and her cunningly ambitious impending marriage. On a train journey, as she sleeps, Powell and Pressburger project her dreams onto the plastic wrapping of her wedding dress, hanging nearby, with the crinkly plastic overlaying her dream images, as though she's surrounded in it, trapped by it, about to be preserved or suffocated in plastic. Voices chattering about her wedding and the plans surrounding it are synced up with the chugga-chugga rhythm of the train's wheels, a manic clatter of voices that seem to be mocking her with their talk of schedules planned down to the minute. She's haunted by the rigidly planned life she has ahead of her, everything planned out, everything safe and scheduled, a life seemingly dedicated only to getting the wealth and prestige she'd always thought she'd wanted. Later, when she's getting off the train, Powell and Pressburger mock the stuffed-shirt assistants who greet her by segueing from one man's top hat to a shot of a train's smokestack, so that the smoke briefly seems to be erupting from the top of the man's head. Even before the storm delays her, Joan seems to be having second thoughts, she's just too stubborn to ever admit it.

When Joan arrives at the island of Mull, a gorgeous, moody atmosphere settles over the film, with voices calling through the fog, and men silhouetted on the rocky shore, set off against the tumultuous waves of the sea. None of Joan's stubbornness and determination can overcome the weather, and though she insists on standing by the water waiting for a boat that, it's obvious, is not coming, she can't will the wind to stop blowing or the sea to calm. She might know where she's going, but she's finally confronted something she can't control; the winds and waves are as stubborn as she is. And then she meets Torquil, with whom she immediately forms a warm and obvious bond, even though her standoffish instincts keep trying to reassert themselves. Even if Joan herself thinks she knows where she's going, the audience knows she'll be going somewhere else altogether. The pleasure lies in the grace and beauty with which Powell and Pressburger document this blossoming love, juxtaposing it with the majestic rural expanses of the Scottish islands and the foreboding splendor of the overcast weather.

The film powerfully captures the feel of Scottish culture, steeped in the Gaelic language, with its mysterious sounds and cadences, so like music. One of the film's loveliest scenes is the anniversary celebration that Torquil and Joan attend, leaving behind the stuffy society bridge game of Bellinger's friends to listen to music and watch the dancing of the servants. The floor shakes, and the bagpipers play, and the dancers couple off and swap partners, laughing and drinking and have a great time, such a far cry from the lame tea party upstairs, where one woman kept interrupting any potentially interesting conversation with questions about when they were going to play bridge. The film continually contrasts the folksy ways of the island dwellers against the high society manners of the crowd that Joan is soon going to be marrying into. The people of the island, Torquil says, are "not poor, they just haven't got any money," which he insists isn't the same thing, though Joan doesn't see it — what Torquil means, of course, is that they just don't need any money.

When Joan first arrives on the island, her buttoned-up manners and assiduous politeness are contrasted against the local woman Catriona (Pamela Brown), who makes a grand entrance preceded by her wet, shaggy, exuberant dogs — contrasted later against the sedate true-breeds of the rich folk — with the woman herself bounding into the room with the same enthusiasm, her hair wet, her eyes fiery and a broad grin on her face as she embraces her old friend Torquil and exclaims her welcome in Gaelic. Catriona is so different from the prim and proper Joan; when Joan says that she and Torquil should eat lunch at separate tables, he says that she's the most proper girl he ever met, which she decides to take as a compliment even though there's more than a note of irony in his tone.

The film deals broadly with the theme of rural decency versus elite sophistication, with Joan's stubbornness set off against the locals' familiarity with nature and connection to the earth and the sea, and against the local legends that add mystery and myth and a sense of history to their lives. In contrast, Joan's prospective husband tells her over a radio that only one family in the area is worth knowing: a family of elitist snobs just like him, of course. He's not interested in communing with nature or learning about local history, and Joan is ultimately seduced as much by the land, the people, the culture, as she is by Torquil himself.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Story of Adèle H.

François Truffaut's The Story of Adèle H. is a study of romantic obsession and madness, an intensely focused character study about the disintegration of a young woman's mind in the wake of a failed romance. Based on the diary of Adèle Hugo (Isabelle Adjani), the daughter of French writer Victor Hugo, the film concerns Adèle's desperate and unrequited love for the British lieutenant Albert Pinson (Bruce Robinson). Adèle follows Pinson to Halifax in Canada, where he deploys with the army during the American Civil War. She begins stalking and pursuing the chilly, disinterested lieutenant, who's earned a reputation as a womanizer and a spendthrift, amassing gambling debts and bedding many women while Adèle pines hopelessly for him.

Truffaut relates the story of Adèle's descent into madness with a simple, direct style, chronicling without ornament or sentiment the increasing desperation and sorrow of this young girl who suffers for her love, chasing a man who clearly has no interest in her anymore, who has already gotten all he ever wanted from her. The film's style is bleak and dry, and Néstor Almendros' images are restrained to a flat color palette of grays and browns, capturing the increasingly constricted and miserable world that Adèle, so focused on her love, barely even notices around her. The film is overly literary, tied, like many of Truffaut's films, to its script, and to the excerpts from Adèle's letters and journals, which she often reads in voiceover. The film often feels bogged down by words, by letters passing back and forth, and if not for the remarkable performance that Truffaut gets from his lead actress, there would be little to hold onto here.

The film is driven by Adjani's exceptional performance as the miserable Adèle. Adjani possesses a fragile, crystalline beauty that, as the film progresses, becomes increasingly pale and wispy, her skin the shade of paper, her eyes strained by her constant tears. She carries the film's full emotional weight, perfectly capturing the intense suffering of this lovesick woman. Adèle's misery could seem simply pathetic if Adjani's performance were not so raw and sensitive, so totally committed to conveying this young woman's passion and her pain. As she becomes more and more unhinged, she begins to look like a ghost, dressed in rags, unable any longer to disguise her madness behind the appearances of a respected young lady.

Adjani is a powerful central presence, gradually revealing more and more of her tormented inner life as the script slowly peels back the layers of her insanity. There are indications that Adèle's mind isn't especially stable even before her fruitless pursuit of Pinson definitively shatters her mental well-being. When someone tells Adèle that she must have been unhappy when her older sister died, she replies, "everyone in the family adored her," a non-answer that suggests her ambivalent feelings about the sister who looked so much like her but seemingly had her life much more in order than the obsessive, lonely Adèle. Adèle is haunted by dreams in which she's drowning, as though she identifies with her sister, who died so dramatically with her loving husband, unable to save her, drowning along with her. It seems as though Adèle almost envies this romantic tragedy, haunted by the knowledge that her dead sister not only was favored by the family, but possessed the true, intense, passionate love that Adèle herself so desperately desires.

Adèle's infatuation with Lieutenant Pinson causes her to profoundly disconnect from reality, concocting such an elaborate series of lies and distortions that it's soon not clear what she actually believes. While she fruitlessly pursues the lieutenant, she sends dispatches back to her concerned family in which she makes it seems as though she and Pinson are in love and preparing to be married. Adèle is so immersed in her love that she's detached from reality, at once knowing that Pinson will never marry her and yet clinging to an impossible, unrealistic hope that he will change his mind. Her love drives her to some rather pathetic behavior: she tells Pinson that if he marries her, she will allow him to continue seeing other women, and at one point she even hires a prostitute and sends her to Pinson for the night, though Truffaut discreetly cuts to black before revealing if Pinson accepted this outrageous gift or not. Adèle even considers hiring a hypnotist to hypnotize Pinson into marrying her, though she abandons this possibility when the hypnotist is revealed as a fraud.

Truffaut occasionally shifts the film's focus off of Adèle to clumsily discourse on her father. At one point, a doctor discovers Adèle's identity and explains, mostly to the audience, just who Victor Hugo is and why he's so important, delivering an exposition-laden speech about the great man's literary talent and political beliefs, as well as a condensed version of his biography. It's obvious that Truffaut wanted to present this miniature essay on Hugo, to express his admiration for the author who had been exiled for his convictions, but this material has been shoehorned in here, its tone forced and unconvincing. The same goes for the voiceover at the end of the film, in which a narrator abruptly steps in to describe what happens to Adèle after the film ends, as well as to discuss the death of Victor Hugo and the mourning for the great man across all of France. Most of the film is so resolutely focused on internality and emotion that these diversions into historical context, these odes to Hugo, feel very out of place.

The film as a whole is often interesting, thanks mainly to Adjani's strong performance, but it's also a curiously flat affair, anchored by that searing central performance and not much else. It's never clear why Truffaut thinks this story is so important, though the great import placed on Adèle's parentage raises the disturbing possibility that Truffaut is telling the story mainly because of his admiration for Victor Hugo, rather than because he finds Adèle herself so compelling. It's a study of emotional breakdown, but though Adjani commits completely to this role and powerfully conveys her character's fragmentation, it never feels like the film as a whole is as committed to these intense emotions as the actress is. Truffaut retains his distance, resting the film so completely on the actress that in the end, it's only her performance that makes an impact rather than the character or the story, let alone any ideas or themes that might arise from this tale.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Great Dictator

Charles Chaplin resisted the coming of sound more successfully than any other filmmaker of the silent era, making a pair of mostly silent masterpieces after the rest of Hollywood had completely converted to sound. The Great Dictator was his first true sound picture, but even more more notably, it was the first American film to so directly mock and satirize Hitler and the Nazi regime before Pearl Harbor triggered the USA's entrance into World War II. It's a bold and daring film, an expression of defiance against dictatorship, hatred, violence and prejudice. The full extent of what was going on in German concentration camps and ghettos wasn't yet broadly known, at least when production on the film started in 1937, so some of Chaplin's comic set pieces are simultaneously unsettling and eerily prescient, dealing candidly and potently with the persecution of the Jews.

It's a viciously funny movie, a devastating satire that dares to make evil look ridiculous. Chaplin plays twin roles: the nasty and stupid dictator Adenoid Hynkel and an unnamed Jewish barber who seems like a last echo of the Little Tramp character who Chaplin had officially retired with the end of the silent era. While Hynkel, an egoist for whom power is the only goal, spreads war and persecution, the barber just wants to be left alone, to be free to live in peace and run his shop. Wounded in the first war and left in a coma, he slept through Hynkel's rise to power and wakes up as stormtroopers charge through the ghettos, painting the tag "Jew" on Jewish shops and homes, beating people and stealing from them.

The barber doesn't understand, and this is the most richly, deeply sad part of the film, this encounter between the innocence of the barber, this cinematic descendant of the Little Tramp, and the vile hatred of the Nazis. Chaplin's barber confronts the ideology of hate with genuine bafflement, confused as to why these people he's never seen before are harassing him in this way for no reason. He even mistakes a Nazi soldier for a cop, asking him to arrest another soldier. As the barber, Chaplin's voice is soft and whispery, an expression of gentleness and decency, the exact opposite of the blustery speechifying of Hynkel and the barked orders of the Nazis as they attack the Jews. The barber and the other Jews depicted in the film seem totally out of step with the rage and bile of the era; they just want to be left alone, to live their lives in peace.

The barber's disconnection from his era is epitomized right from the beginning of the film, in which he serves as a soldier during World War I. The opening scenes provide a general satire of warfare and military discipline, with Chaplin's hapless draftee stumbling through the fog of the battlefield, stoically following orders as they push him from one absurd scenario to another. Smoke drifts across the frame, swallowing up all the soldiers on both sides so thoroughly that at one point Chaplin falls in line with the enemy troops. This all plays out in an eerie hush that recalls the silent visual aesthetics of Chaplin's earlier films, a style he had by no means abandoned with his delayed acceptance of the sound era. The minimalism and starkness of this opening enforces the film's theme, highlighting the absurdity and ugliness of war so that when Hynkel appears, stirring up the people with an ideology that's committed to more war, to a constant state of war, his foolishness is very apparent.

Chaplin's Hitler caricature has a strange, childlike grace, like an overgrown little boy. Moved and chilled by his minister's grand dreams for the dictator's future conquests, Hynkel bounces straight up in the air and climbs the curtains, hanging there, and then he performs a remarkable dance with a globe balloon that he balances on his palm, light as air, gleefully letting it fly high up into the air. Chaplin plays the scene as silent pantomime, a brilliant parody of the dictator's fantasy of himself as a world ruler, both utterly absurd and chillingly, strangely beautiful. When the balloon pops, he breaks down and sobs like a little boy whose toy has been taken away.

The film is often most powerful in the scenes that rely on this kind of silent comedy performance. At one point, Chaplin's barber, overcome with terror, loses his voice and pantomimes an elaborate series of hand signals about the approaching Nazi stormtroopers — in times of great stress and emotion, he reverts to the silent era's method of communicating. Perhaps for that reason, the film is full of callbacks to earlier Chaplin films. The barber attacks a Nazi soldier with a paintbrush at one point, swiping white paint across his face, referencing the manic slapstick of Chaplin's early shorts. Hynkel's gibberish speech at the beginning of the film, delivered with uncanny mockery of Hitler's cadences although the language is a nonsense pidgin-German, recalls the nonsense song that Chaplin had sung in Modern Times, thus connecting the dictator's rhetoric to the singing waiter's silly tune. Chaplin's casting of Paulette Goddard as the barber's love interest Hannah also provides some continuity with Modern Times, especially since when she first appears her dirty face and raggy clothes seem like echoes of her "gamine" from the earlier film. It's as though Chaplin and Goddard's poor characters had been transplanted to Nazi Germany, crushed down by the fascist system even more virulently than they'd been crushed by the modern, industrialized society of Modern Times.

Indeed, Chaplin explicitly links the Nazi ideology to modernity and mechanization, calling the Nazis "machine men with machine minds and machine hearts" in the stirring speech that he delivers at the end of the film, breaking character for an extraordinary monologue in which Chaplin seems to be directly addressing the film's audience, pleading for sanity and decency rather than hatred and violence.

Monday, August 20, 2012


Erich von Stroheim's Greed is one of the cinema's most legendary lost films, another in a long line of compromised, butchered, hacked-up could-be-masterpieces from the unlucky director, whose complete vision rarely emerged intact from the studio assembly line. Greed suffered perhaps more than any of his other works: originally nine hours long, it was sliced apart multiple times by studio-hired editors who finally produced a two-hour release version, at which point the remaining seven hours of celluloid were recycled and discarded. Von Stroheim said of the editor who put together the final cut, "the only thing he had on his mind was his hat." It's hard to know what other outcome von Stroheim expected, and it's hard to know why the studios let him film these unwieldy epics in the first place when they knew they'd never screen anything even vaguely resembling the full cuts. Von Stroheim's massive projects were destined to fail, destined to be destroyed and compromised, resulting in a career strewn with wrecked partial films. He was too ambitious, and too unconcerned with commercial and practical considerations, for the era in which he lived and worked.

Greed is especially compromised; whereas von Stroheim's earlier Foolish Wives feels nearly like a complete work despite the similarly massive edits to the director's original vision, the incompleteness of Greed is very apparent. This is true of both the two-hour theatrical cut and the four-hour "reconstruction" that attempts to approximate some of the original film's narrative through the use of still images and text taken from Frank Norris' novel McTeague, the source that von Stroheim was scrupulously adapting here. Greed's fragmentary nature is obvious in either form, at times verging into incoherence, and whole characters were almost entirely chopped out of the shorter two-hour cut, so there are characters and subplots that only appear in the still frames that attempt to bridge the gap between von Stroheim's original vision and the ragged remains left behind by the studio intervention.

Neither existing version of the film is especially satisfying, though the broad outlines of von Stroheim's vision can still be discerned. This is an almost unrelentingly bleak film, and even the prospect of enduring nine hours of this misery, to end up in the film's harrowing Death Valley climax, is exhausting and disheartening. As the title implies, this is a study of avarice, of people corrupted by the love of money above all else. At the center of the film is the dentist McTeague (Gibson Gowland), a brutish lout with a quick temper and a slow intellect, who falls in love with Trina (Zazu Pitts), the cousin and girlfriend of McTeague's best friend Marcus (Jean Hersholt). Marcus, learning of McTeague's desire for Trina, graciously steps aside, until Trina wins five thousand dollars in a lottery shortly before getting married to McTeague. Marcus, who could have tolerated his friend taking his girl, now grows jealous of the couple's newfound riches.

This is a pretty miserable excuse for a love triangle. Indeed, McTeague and Trina's romance is curiously ambivalent and inconsistent, and one senses it's not entirely because of all the missing footage: sometimes this ill-matched couple seems drawn together, and sometimes they barely seem interested in one another. McTeague's marriage proposal is offhanded, as though they might as well get married just because they can tolerate each other, while Trina, with her drawn face and wide eyes, looks perpetually frightened of this bulky lug of a man. McTeague is capable of both great violence and surprising tenderness — he's introduced kissing a wounded bird and then throwing a man off a cliff for mocking his affection for the bird — but the moments of actual sweetness and love between the couple are rare. Even the moment where McTeague first grows obsessed with her is tinged with creepiness: she's his dental patient, drugged and passed out, and he leans in to smell her hair and kiss her before operating on her teeth. Once they're married, Trina grows more and more caricatured as a miserly witch who caresses her hordes of gold while denying McTeague even a nickel for a bus fare.

Everything is drawn broadly here, with bold, over-sized performances that project the intense, unrelentingly ugly emotions at the core of this story. Among the plots trimmed from the theatrical cut is the side story of the junk dealer Zerkow (Cesare Gravina) and Maria (Dale Fuller), who he marries only because of her (possibly imagined) stories about a treasure trove of gold plates she once possessed in her childhood. This subplot echoes the increasingly unhappy romance of the leads, and foreshadows the grisly end of their tale. Zerkow is a rather nasty and obvious anti-Semitic caricature, a grasping, greedy Jew who's only obsessed with gold, but he barely stands out here because nearly everyone in the film has the same traits, the same lust for gold (inevitably tinted yellow whenever it appears), the same singleminded fixation on riches to the exclusion of all else.

Von Stroheim is crafting a mocking satire of middle class desires, which is especially apparent during the lengthy wedding sequence. While Trina and McTeague are getting married, a funeral procession passes below, the black-clothed mourners passing by on the street, visible as a long parade through the window behind the preacher who's officiating the wedding. After this gloomy association of marriage with death, the wedding becomes a series of materialist rituals: the bride and groom greedily open the gifts, and then everyone stuffs their faces in an orgy of gluttony. After the wedding is over, as the guests are leaving, Trina becomes overcome with fear: she's terrified of the wedding night physicality to come, the encroaching loss of her virginity. She looks at her new husband with eyes wide, covering her mouth as though shivering before a monster, and then she sees him replaced by an image of a bird cage with two birds trapped inside. That's the life she sees before them, a mutual prison with no hope of escape.

Clearly, von Stroheim isn't especially interested in subtlety, and Greed is an interesting, unresolved blend of theatrical overstatement and quotidian realism. Von Stroheim was apparently committed to capturing the full sprawl of Norris' novel with all its detailed depictions of poverty and daily money woes for the lower middle-class, living check to check and juggling bills to survive. Traces of this sensibility survive in the extant versions of the film, always balanced against the more melodramatic, grotesque exaggerations of the performances and the over-the-top characterization of nearly everyone as being cartoonishly overcome with lust for gold. In the most literal depiction of that lust, slightly trimmed and censored for the theatrical release, Trina actually strips naked in order to crawl into a bed strewn with gold pieces, so that she can feel the gold against her bare skin.

Von Stroheim's aesthetic naturally tends towards the grandiose in this way; he unfailingly thinks big, which is perhaps why he kept trying to make nine-hour movies and why he filled those enormous canvases with bold, expressive symbolic images. When Marcus is in the middle of a seemingly jovial, friendly conversation in which he tells Trina and McTeague that he's going away, von Stroheim cuts away and inserts an interlude of a cat squinting hungrily up at McTeague's caged birds. The symbolism is obvious, and undercuts the seeming sincerity of Marcus' promise that "bygones is bygones." In the subsequent scene in which McTeague receives a letter ordering him to stop practicing dentistry without a license, a cat stalks around the frame in the background, still eying that bird cage, connecting this incident back to Marcus, who apparently provided the information about McTeague's illegal business.

Von Stroheim, channeling Norris, is creating a sustained, narrowly focused study of the grim fate awaiting all of these money-obsessed people. The only small bright spot of decency in the film, ironically all but chopped out of the theatrical cut, is the sweet, shy romance of two good-natured elderly neighbors whose pure, kind love provides a contrast against the selfishness and nastiness that corrupts and destroys the other relationships in the film. Although the film is horribly mangled at only two hours, and not much better in its awkwardly reconstructed form, it's also hard to imagine it at nine hours, which would have to seem overwhelmingly excessive for such a singleminded study of a simple theme.

In any event, Greed is a flawed, fascinating, incomplete epic, from its bleak opening portrait of McTeague's youth with a drunken, philandering father and unhappy mother, to its harrowing, sun-drenched Death Valley climax, which von Stroheim, to the chagrin of his crew, insisted on shooting in the actual sweltering Death Valley heat. As with many of the director's excesses, it's hard to say what effect this verisimilitude had, but the sequence is undeniably powerful, with its minimalist desert vistas coated with a pale yellow filter to evoke the heat pouring down from the sun overhead. Whatever Greed might have been if its full version had remained intact, it has survived as a mere scintillating fragment of what must have been a great and possibly insane landmark of the cinema.

Friday, August 17, 2012


F.W. Murnau followed the daring, innovative masterpiece The Last Laugh with a much more modest, smaller-scale, but still interesting feature, his clever adaptation of Molière's Tartuffe. Murnau increases the distance from Molière's satire by making the actual Tartuffe story a film within the film, surrounded by a framing story that mirrors the one in the Molière tale. In this framing story, a young man (André Mattoni) is disinherited by his grandfather (Hermann Picha) because the old man disapproves of his grandson's choice of profession: a film actor. The old man is under the influence of a nasty housekeeper (Rosa Valetti), who's literally and metaphorically poisoning the old man and convincing him to change his will to make her the beneficiary rather than the grandson. It's a story that neatly mirrors Tartuffe, so the grandson, to convince his grandfather of the housekeeper's manipulation, disguises himself as a traveling projectionist and shows them both a film of Tartuffe.

This is the film within the film, in which Emil Jannings plays the titular con man, a religious preacher who convinces the wealthy Orgon (Werner Krauss) to shun material goods, even pushing away the affections of his wife (Lil Dagover) and eventually writing Tartuffe into his will. The choice to position this adaptation in this fashion, as a film within the film, is interesting because Tartuffe is all about exposing hypocrites, and for Murnau, whose films were almost always firmly grounded in moral messages, a primary vehicle for exposing hypocrisy and evil was of course the cinema. It's telling that the hero grandson of the framing story earns disapproval for pursuing a career in film acting, and yet it's through film that he exposes the evil of the housekeeper, delivering a fable that helps open the old man's eyes to the similar situation going on in his own film. Murnau opens and closes the film with text titles that implicitly direct the audience to similarly look for hypocrisy in their own experiences, thus extending the film's reach to a further layer.

Jannings, as always, delivers a stunning performance as the sinister Tartuffe, doing maybe too good of a job at evoking the false priest's slack-faced, dour malice, because he's such a horrible, vile creation that it's hard to believe that anyone could fall under his influence. He's continually scowling, his face always crooked: one eye bulging and another slitted, one corner of his mouth drooping below the other. His very face reflects his unbalanced, crooked nature, a hideous mask of menace, always frowning with disapproval and judgment, even as he secretly indulges in his own lusty appetites. This leads Orgon's wife Elmire to attempt a clever plan to seduce the manipulator, exposing him as a fraud by revealing his base, fleshy appetites. In one scene between them, Tartuffe disingenuously scolds Elmire while thrusting the edge of a bible against her cleavage, the holy book's proximity to the woman's ample breast enforcing the hypocrisy of this supposed holy man who denies the pleasure of others while illicitly thirsting for his own pleasure.

Murnau infuses these scenes with a strange eroticism, because eroticism is very much what's at stake in this story: when Orgon first returns home under the influence of Tartuffe, he won't even kiss his wife, who's obviously used to much more sensual and affectionate welcomes. And it's eroticism that eventually wins this game, as Elmire bares her shoulders and her cleavage for the monstrous Tartuffe, throwing her head back and caressing herself to break through his hypocritical façade of chaste religious devotion. Murnau shoots from a high angle, looking down on the woman as she reluctantly stretches and bares her skin to entice Tartuffe into betraying his denial of worldly pleasures.

Although this film is far simpler and more direct than Murnau's more elaborate expressionist masterpieces like The Last Laugh or Faust, it's still very visually expressive and evocative. Murnau's visual inventiveness is revealed in small but telling touches. Elmire, grieving over her husband's wayward devotion to the trickster Tartuffe, stares at a portrait of Orgon in a locket and cries over him, the tears falling on the picture and distorting it, creating a warped vision of Orgon that looks more like the melty-faced Tartuffe himself. Later, that prophecy seems to come true in the scene where Orgon spies on Tartuffe with Elmire, and the con man catches on to the trap by glimpsing Orgon's distorted, elongated face reflected in a coffee pot, staring out from between the curtains behind Tartuffe.

The film sticks to a few minimalist, claustrophobic sets, and Murnau fills them with dense shadows, the house encased in darkness because the spartan Tartuffe despises luxuries like lights. This provides an opportunity for striking shots like the one where the family's maid creeps up the stairs holding a candle, her profile extended onto the wall in front of her. Though Tartuffe is never as visually sumptuous or restlessly inventive as Murnau's best work, these kinds of striking images make it still an interesting, low-key film. It's also notable as Murnau's tribute to his chosen medium, positioning the Molière tale in a framework that confirms the cinema's power to explore morality and affect viewers' minds and hearts.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

La vie est un roman

Alain Resnais' La vie est un roman is another curious experiment from the restlessly inventive director, whose work has always been concerned with the nature of the mind and the imagination, with the fluid nature of reality, time and space under the influence of the human mind. This film, built on a script by Resnais' frequent collaborator Jean Gruault, weaves together three separate stories, three separate times and layers of reality, all unified by a shared location. A remote castle in the country, part of an unfinished project by the eccentric Count Forbek (Ruggero Raimondi), is the setting for three stories that together form a dazzling, ambiguous study of love, childhood, and imagination. Forbek builds his castle as a palace of happiness, but is interrupted by World War I, and after the war reunites his surviving friends on the half-completed grounds for a strange experiment. Later, in the 1980s, the castle has become a school, where a group of educators with unusual ideas are holding a conference on teaching methods. Running throughout both of these stories is a fragmentary, theatrically stylized ancient tale of a Robin Hood-like warrior of the people rescuing a damsel and leading a rebellion against a cruel king.

That fairy tale narrative often seems to emerge from the fertile imaginations of the children who run around the school's grounds, oblivious to the seriousness and fractiousness with which the adults approach the subject of guiding children. While the other two stories here are as real or as fake as any fictional narrative within a film, the heroic story is self-consciously presented as a work of imagination, taking place within a dreamlike, surrealistic, brightly artificial world that seems to intersect with the reality of the rest of the film at right angles. A woman carrying a baby, rescued from the vicious king, climbs out of a hidden passage in a tree as a car passes by on the nearby road, heading towards the school. As Resnais' camera pans to follow this woman from a fairy tale, the naturalistic scenery of the forest surrounding the school is interrupted by the intrusion of painted sets that look like animated images inserted into the real world, as jarring as the intersection of drawn and filmed worlds in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. This tale of knights and kings and monsters and beautiful damsels in distress is obviously the outgrowth of the children's imaginations, as they run around the school, mostly unheeded by the adults, their imaginations running wild, creating exciting scenes of battle as the hero vanquishes a humanoid lizard, saves the woman and wins her love, and sets off towards his destiny.

The other stories here are just as fictional and as artificial, even if they seem to have a mostly more "realistic" sensibility to the way they're filmed and presented. The World War I story is a lurid melodrama of rejected love and betrayal, as Forbek, after the war, finds that his fiancée Livia (Fanny Ardant) has left him for another man, their mutual friend Raoul (André Dussollier). Forbek invites the couple, along with the rest of their friends, back to his castle, where he proposes a strange experiment: he gives everyone a potion that sends them into a deep sleep, and begins what he calls a process of rebirth, brainwashing his guests into childlike, innocent new people of pure love and happiness. The modern-day story is similarly about the implausibility of romantic notions like "true love," which the naïve teacher Élisabeth (Sabine Azéma) believes in despite her own troubled history with romance. The more cynical Nora (Geraldine Chaplin) proposes a bet with her friend Claudine (Martine Kelly): that they can get the idealistic Élisabeth to fall in love with a man of their choosing — the goofy, childlike Robert (Pierre Arditi) — and thereby prove that "true love" is a construct, subject to manipulations and misdirections.

What Nora and Forbek have in common is a desire to shape reality to their own whims; they are the writers, the creators, of their own private stories, with real life as the raw material for their dramas and love stories, except that life isn't so malleable, and people seldom follow the predictable dramatic arcs of fictional characters. Forbek and Nora are, in their own ways, and for their own selfish reasons, trying to tell a story using other people, but their plans don't play out with the iconic narrative flow of the hero's legendary slaying of the evil king. This is the essence of the film, an inquiry into the relationship between reality and the art that supposedly mirrors it and influences it. Are the stories we tell reflections of reality? Or are they ideals that we then aim for in our lives, desperately and fruitlessly trying to make life conform to the logic of a story? Life might be a novel, a story, a fairy tale — or, as in the English version of the title, "a bed of roses" — but it's not necessarily the story we want or expect. As the audience, we might believe that the hero or heroine of the story has chosen incorrectly, that the happy ending is not quite the happy ending we thought was coming, that this isn't the love story we thought it was. Those who try to shape reality into a story of their choosing, meanwhile, find reality resisting, the branches of its stories extending in unpredictable directions, refusing to be trimmed into the neat shape of a novelistic structure.

At the same time, the film is very much shaped as a narrative, if not by Nora and Forbek, those would-be storytellers, then by Resnais and Gruault, whose control over this fictional construction purposefully frustrates the characters' illusions of control. Resnais continually announces the film's fictional nature by increasingly styling it as a musical comedy, having the characters break out into song. The music creeps into the film, at first appearing only sporadically in strange little fragments of singing, often with an offscreen voice repeating a phrase that had just been spoken, as though hinting at an alternative realization of this story in which the characters express themselves through song. The music takes over more frequently as the film goes along, occasionally interrupting the diegesis entirely for proper musical numbers, like Élisabeth's passionate defense of the concept of "true love" against the skepticism of Nora and Claudine. "The man I'll fall in love with isn't a bar of soap," she sings fiercely, angered by Nora's comparison of love to picking out household goods in a supermarket — she's romantic and sentimental, possessed by ideas handed down by romantic novels, grand romantic fictions, great love stories. Nora, in contrast, seizes on the comparison to commercial products, believing that love is as susceptible to marketing as anything else. In the end, neither of them is quite right: the reality isn't quite as romantic as Élisabeth thinks it is, which gives the happy ending a bittersweet undercurrent, but Nora is also proven wrong in her belief that people can be moved around and forced into playing roles in stories right out of fiction.

The film is thus both a tribute to the imagination and, perhaps, a consideration of its limits, of the failings and boundaries erected by human flaws and the pettiness of so many dreams and desires. It's all about the unfettered imagination of a child versus the limited, constricted perspective of an adult, locked into rigid ideologies and ideas about how things should be. When Élisabeth unveils the giant model landscape she uses as a teaching tool, after an initial period of awed murmuring, the other teachers in the audience begin criticizing her from their many perspectives — she's blocking children's imaginations, she's too neutral politically, she's not pragmatic enough — and the conference degenerates into splintered arguments and a chorus of chattering, singing voices. Only the children, and Robert with his childlike sense of imagination, ignore all this discord and begin happily playing with the model, exploring its layout and its interchangeable parts, eagerly constructing new combinations of modules. The conference attendees say they're only interested in the happiness and success of children, but their various theories and ideologies are developed seemingly without any regard for actual children, with little true understanding of their charges. At one point, one of the educators, who professes libertarian beliefs and claims to encourage freedom in the classroom, gets interrupted when one of the rambunctious kids runs into the room and throws a tomato at the teacher's face, expressing exactly the freedom that he says he wants.

This is another typically thought-provoking and challenging experiment from Resnais, whose formal experimentation has always mirrored his films' themes of artifice, memory, thought, history and time. Here, he weaves together three separate stories that seem to share only a common locale, but actually are linked, much more interestingly, in terms of Resnais' thematic focus on the nature of storytelling and its relationship with "reality." At the same time, La vie est un roman is also, itself, a grandly entertaining set of stories, from its theatrical legend to the lavish, elegant style and B-movie sci-fi trappings of the post-WWI story to the musical romance of the modern story. Resnais is deconstructing the form and purpose of narrative and fiction, but crucially, he's not denying the pleasure and the imaginative potential of these stories, which is perhaps why he ends the film by giving the last word to the playing children, singing a song that hints at an adult "understanding" that's always just out of reach, no matter what one's age is.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Day For Night

François Truffaut's Day For Night is a love letter to the movies, a celebration of everything that happens on a film set, from the moment the director says "action" to the moment he says "cut" and everything that goes on around those boundaries, the personal dramas and business negotiations and constant attention to tiny details that all gets woven into the finished product of a movie. Truffaut himself plays a director making a movie, a melodramatic tragedy called Meet Pamela, and Day for Night is structured entirely around the production of the film within the film, with sporadic detours into the romantic dramas of the cast and crew, as well as the day-to-day logistical problems associated with making a movie.

The film is a love letter not just to the movies, but to a specific form of movies, the studio-bound big production. Truffaut at times seems to think he's making an elegy for a dead form of movie-making; his character, the director Ferrand, says in voiceover that this kind of movie is outdated, that from now on movies will be shot in the streets rather than on studio sets. Truffaut is offering a nostalgic look back at the movies made before the French New Wave came along, seemingly with the assumption that Truffaut and his compatriots had rendered these big productions and artificial sets obsolete. It's an elegy that, forty years later, seems more than a little premature, as Truffaut himself — who, whatever the merits of his work, hardly ever followed up on the radical promise of his shot-on-the-streets debut — should have understood very well.

Despite this misplaced nostalgia, the film is charming because it's so packed with the director's obvious love of the movies, his affection for actors, stuntmen, script-girls, props crew and makeup artists, even producers. There are countless little affectionate nods to the love of movies. The crew passes "Rue Jean Vigo" on the way to a shoot, there are references to everything from The Rules of the Game to The Godfather, and at one point Ferrand spills out a package full of books, all of them tributes to directors, including Buñuel, Hawks, Robin Wood's book on Hitchcock, even a book about Truffaut's fellow New Wave legend Godard, who had taken such a different path through the cinema, and with whom Truffaut had had a rocky relationship for years. (Godard, unsurprisingly, hated the film with its celebration of a studio-bound, craftsmanlike approach to the cinema, and the fallout from their angry letters about this film severed their friendship for good.)

Ferrand is also haunted by a dream of a boy stealing posters for Citizen Kane from a movie theater, a sign of how early in life the love of cinema manifests for these characters, and a nod to the director's continuing fascination with childhood. It's touching, even though Ferrand himself, haunted by dreams of cinematic greatness, hardly seems to be making an ambitious artistic masterpiece like Kane. Maybe Truffaut, whose own career was spotted with uneven, traditionalist love stories of the kind that Ferrand is making here, is suggesting that the charm and the pleasure of movies can be found in even some less satisfying and ambitious examples of the form. Just as Jean-Pierre Léaud's character, the actor Alphonse, is happy to go to the movies to see anything, Ferrand seems happy to be making a movie, any movie, and whether it's good or bad he'll be happy to have made it, to have created something from all this chaos and unpredictability.

Where Truffaut really excels, as always, is in honing in on little moments of searing emotionality amidst the chaos. On this set, everyone is sleeping with everyone, and while much of this plays out as typical bed-hopping farce, there's also genuine pathos in the on-set romances, particularly surrounding the production's lead actress Julie (Jacqueline Bisset) and Léaud's Alphonse. Alphonse spends much of the movie angrily pining for his girlfriend Liliane (Dani), who promises she's his but takes every opportunity to sneak off into a corner with other crew members, and finally leaves the set entirely with a departing British stuntman. Julie, trying to calm Alphonse down and prevent him from storming off the production, winds up going to bed with him, a mistake she instantly regrets when the needy, emotionally immature Alphonse (a very similar character to Léaud's Antoine Doinel) decides that he loves her and calls her husband to tell him so.

After the fallout from this has played out, the subsequent scenes of Julie and Alphonse together are infused with a somber gravity, the unscripted emotions of their private lives seeping into the script, sometimes intentionally as when Ferrand writes some of Julie's private words into the script for her character to say. One scene in particular, in which Julie walks with a candle casting a warm glow onto her features, staring straight ahead at the camera while Alphonse caresses her face, seems loaded with the emotions from the actors' offscreen affair, reverberating with the equally troubled onscreen relationship of their characters, who are supposed to be married.

There is also a great deal of emotional subtext surrounding two actors who are meant to represent the dying studio system, the old way of doing things. Severine (Valentina Cortese) was a once-great actress who now seems to be falling apart, constantly drunk on set and barely able to remember her lines or her cues. (Hilariously, she says she's used to working with Fellini in Italy, where dialogue is generally dubbed, so all she had to do was recite numbers while performing.) Scenes with her are repeatedly reshot, often becoming more and more disastrous with each take as she becomes drunker and more inconsolable over her failures. At one point, she laments that she's growing older, that her contemporary and costar Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Aumont) is still getting roles as dapper lovers, while she gets cast in thankless parts as the jilted wife. There's a feminist subtext here about the differential treatment of men and women in the movies, but Truffaut, typically, briefly hints at the idea rather than really developing it; he's interested in stories, not ideas, which is always what separated him most decisively from Godard.

Alexandre himself is the other old-guard actor who embodies the film's nostalgia for old ways of doing things. Throughout the film, he's continually relating charming anecdotes about old Hollywood, about the quirks of the star system and the gossipy behind-the-scenes chatter that flows through the movie industry. At one point, as he relates one of these anecdotes, Truffaut's camera drifts in, probing towards a closeup as this actor waxes nostalgic about the glamour and magic of movies and Hollywood stars. Soon after, Alexandre, this symbol of the old era, is dead, in an offscreen car crash that might be a nod to Godard's own tribute to moviemaking, Contempt. Indeed, Contempt is an interesting comparison point in general. Godard's film is seemingly more personal in its focus on the emotional torment and romantic drama that gets woven into the production of a movie — Truffaut's bed-hopping dramas are low-key and tangential compared to the searing power of Contempt's apartment argument centerpiece — but Truffaut's film is personal in a different way. It's personal in the way it communicates a deep love of the movies that goes beyond the particular quality, or lack thereof, of a particular movie, to extend to the whole process of making movies, good or bad, ambitious or straightforward, commercial or arty.

Indeed, this is a film about, and probably for, people who love the movies, and live the movies as well. Alphonse wonders if the movies or life are more important, but for Truffaut — as for Léaud, and in his very different way for Godard too — the movies and life are intimately interconnected. And the movies, which transmute life into art, perhaps have the advantage. In one of the film's best and truest lines, the script-girl Joelle (Nathalie Baye), upon learning that Liliane has run off with a stuntman, says earnestly, "I'd drop a guy for a film. I'd never drop a film for a guy." One suspects that Truffaut, for all the romanticism of his movies, feels similarly.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Requiem for a Vampire

Jean Rollin's fourth film, Requiem for a Vampire, was the director's most abstract and bizarre vision yet. Rollin's surreal, alternately eerie and ridiculous vampire movies had always worked according to their own distinctive anti-logic, but here, more than ever, he'd seemingly reached a new level of confidence that allowed him to eliminate narrative altogether, focusing exclusively on the languid establishment of a mood through his vibrant imagery. There's hardly even any dialogue at all, and long stretches of time go by with not a word being spoken. The result is a pure expression of the director's obsessions, a dreamlike series of disconnected scenes in which the film's two beautiful heroines wander aimlessly into (and then out of) a gothic vampire tale.

Marie (Marie-Pierre Castel) and Michelle (Mireille Dargent) are introduced in a nonsensical opening sequence in which they're dressed as clowns, fleeing from mysterious pursuers, engaged in a gun battle in which their male companion is killed. They burn the car, shed their clown makeup and baggy clothes for tiny skirts, pigtails and knee-high socks, and head off through the barren countryside. This prologue is never explained, but it sets the tone of casual absurdity that will drive the film. The film moves at a relaxed pace, the camera slowly tracking around from a distance as the two girls wander through high grass, coming across an overgrown cemetery where they curl up together under a gravestone, and eventually arriving at a stone castle that's populated with vampires.

Rollin's heroines are inquisitive and bold, and they prowl through the castle like a pair of sapphic Nancy Drews, peeking around corners with their eyes wide, investigating these ruins, pausing only briefly to roll around naked together in bed. They come across a strange tableau in which skeletons in robes have been arranged around an altar, with a vampiress (Dominique Toussaint) sitting nearby, playing the organ and leering at the girls with comically large fangs sticking out over her lips. Even when the girls begin fleeing from the vampires and their savage, caveman-like servants, the pace remains narcotized and unsettlingly slow: a chase sequence plays out clumsily in a long shot in which the girls seem to be traipsing casually through a field of flowers while the vampires slowly advance in the distance. Rollin leaves large gaping ellipses that create a subtle sense of disorientation: after one caesura, the girls appear staring numbly ahead, vampire bats affixed to their necks, and then after another cut the bats are simply gone and the girls are left with twin red marks on their necks.

Rather than telling a story, Rollin seems to be working out his symbolism and fetishism of the vampire mythology at a purely primal, sensual level. The leader of the vampires keeps women chained in the basement of the castle, where they're raped and bitten by the vampires and their servants in an over-long and very gratuitous sequence, bathed in red colored lights as the women writhe around on their chains, culminating with a vampire turning into a bat to nestle in the pubic hair of one of the women. Rollin revels in this kind of outlandish imagery, celebrating the gothic sensuality of the vampire legend. During the arcane rituals at the film's climax, a vampire plays the piano in a graveyard while the two girls are led off one by one to be "initiated" by the male vampire, who can only transform virgins into his kind.

The film is a riff on sexuality and virginity, presenting a warped vision of the sexuality often associated with vampires. The two heroines, set to be inducted into vampirism, react in very different ways: while Michelle gives into her new vampiric thirsts, luring a man to the castle by stripping for him before she feeds on him, Marie finds a man as well but just has sex with him and then hides him away, telling the vampires that she couldn't find a victim. Rollin is reversing the usual hypocritical puritanism of so many horror movies, in which women who have sex are inevitably consumed by the movie's evil in the end. Here, it's the virgin who's corrupted, who gives into vampirism, while Marie, because she's no longer a virgin, retains her humanity and refuses to drink blood. Rollin isn't really interested in the love story, though, and at the film's climax, Marie's lover abruptly (and rather comically) gets sick of all this supernatural weirdness and runs off, leaving the two girls to escape together, reunited after the split caused by their different attitudes about vampires and sex.

That's a typical happy ending for Rollin, the girls wandering off into another adventure, leaving behind the rather melancholy and self-destructive vampires in their decrepit graveyard. Throughout the film, the girls flirt with the supernatural, with death and decay, and experiment with their sexualities, and then reaffirm their friendship and leave the darkness and the blood behind, presumably to return to their "ordinary" lives of dressing like clowns while engaging in shootouts and high-speed car chases.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Story of Women

Claude Chabrol's Story of Women is an excellent satirical drama that explores life under the German occupation of France and the Vichy government that served as puppets for the Nazis. Like Chabrol's Violette, made a decade earlier, this film is based on a true story of an infamous woman, in this case Marie Latour, who performed abortions and rented rooms to prostitutes in order to support herself and her family during the Vichy era. As in Violette, Isabelle Huppert again plays a woman whose amorality and self-interest come into conflict with a hypocritical morality that's especially difficult for women to navigate successfully.

Marie starts the film as a typical housewife of the era, scrounging and struggling to provide for her two children while her husband Paul (François Cluzet) is a prisoner of war in Germany. Paul's return doesn't change things much for Marie, since he can't hold down a job and is, understandably, interested in reuniting carnally with his wife after his time in the camps. Marie isn't interested, though, and seems to resent Paul for returning while others, like her Jewish friend Rachel and the men sent to Germany to work as an exchange for the returning prisoners, were sent away. While Paul wastes away at home, unable to work, making cutout pictures to pass the time, Marie gradually begins earning money by performing abortions — for prostitutes, women who have slept with German soldiers, and women already overburdened with children — and renting her room out during the day to her prostitute friend Lulu (Marie Trintignant).

Marie is doing what she can to make her way through a difficult and desperate time. Food is scarce, and before Marie begins bringing in a real income, the family lives in a cramped apartment and subsists on thin soup that Paul says is as bad as the food he got in the camps. Marie seems to have nothing but contempt for men, except perhaps for Lucien (Nils Tavernier), who she eventually takes as a lover, presumably because he's as much of a self-interested opportunist as she is, since he openly collaborates with the occupying Nazis. Otherwise, Marie knows, men don't understand, especially not her ineffectual husband. She justifies her actions with the rationalization that she's feeding her family and doing valuable work to help struggling women, and when she's faced with the consequences of her actions — in a powerful scene where a woman confronts Marie about the death of her sister from a botched abortion procedure — Marie is only briefly affected before she's able to move on cheerfully and blithely with her life.

The film is very much about the moral cost of surviving in a time when morality has been twisted and corrupted, and especially about the specific dilemma of women in this situation. One of the film's most emotionally intense scenes is a prolonged closeup on the face of a woman who explains to Marie why she wants an abortion: she's been pregnant six times in seven years, and resents her children, hates the way her body has been changed by these constant pregnancies, hates how she's been made to feel like an animal whose only role is bearing children and producing milk. It's an astonishing moment, and though Marie doesn't seem to have any feminist motives for her actions, there's no mistaking that her work is an expression of the helplessness of women in this time, in this system. Other women come to see Marie after sleeping with German soldiers, refusing to have children resulting from the occupation of their country — and the occupation of their bodies.

The real stakes here become especially clear in the film's powerful final act, in which Marie is arrested for her crimes and tried by a hypocritical Vichy court that's eager to make an example of her, to reassert French morality and regain some of the national self-respect lost by the country's military defeat and occupation. The judge tells Marie, with a self-satisfied smirk, that her actions reveal "a certain cynicism, a certain debasement" that is, of course, the debasement of France itself beneath the Vichy regime. The judges speak of morality while shipping out Jewish prisoners to Germany to be killed, while engaging in cowardly trades by which French prisoners of war are returned to France but other French citizens are sent to work in Germany, effectively trading one set of prisoners for another. The male tribunal that sits in judgment over Marie is eager to condemn her, eager for some sense of morality and justice, and she's an easy target: an uneducated woman who acted in self-interest to provide for herself and her family, to elevate herself above the generally miserable conditions afflicting the country.

This is a specifically Christian hypocrisy, too, and the Vichy court is intimately linked to Christianity. In the women's prison, nuns preside over the prisoners, and some of the women prisoners condemn Marie for her sins while others seem more understanding. There's cruel irony in Vichy swathing itself in Christian morality, speaking of the souls of the unborn while shipping thousands of living souls off to the death camps. In one fantastic scene, Marie spits out a bile-encrusted prayer that expresses her contempt for this religious sham: "Hail Mary, full of shit. Rotten is the fruit of your womb." Huppert delivers a fantastic performance throughout, but especially in the harrowing final act, as all the luxuries and fineries she'd accumulated throughout the film are stripped away, leaving behind a vulnerable, confused woman who doesn't entirely understand why she's being punished in this way. Marie isn't always an especially likable character, but Huppert perfectly captures the complicated psychological makeup of this woman, while Chabrol contextualizes her as a product of her times, a reflection of the warped morality instituted by the very people who ultimately punish her.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Black Girl

As the first feature film ever made by a black director in sub-Saharan Africa, Ousmane Sembene's 1966 debut Black Girl was a historical landmark, marking the novelist and fledgling filmmaker as the father of African film. At only an hour long, the film is a brisk, punchy, documentary-like examination of economic relations between black Africans and white Europeans, and the crises of identity that are caused by this state of being.

The film focuses on a young Senegalese woman named Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), who's hired as a governess for a white family (Anne-Marie Jelinek and Robert Fontaine) who are living in Dakar. When the family returns to France for a vacation, they bring Diouana back with them to their apartment on the Riviera, but she finds that the trip is not at all what she expected. Outside of Africa, where the family had relied on Diouana only to take care of the children, they now treat her with more naked contempt, parading her before their friends for her exoticism, asking her to cook and clean for them like a maid rather than a governess. The trip to France, which Diouana had been excited about, actually lays bare the true nature of her relationship with this family, a relationship that's more like slavery than a boss/employee dynamic.

Sembene brilliantly conveys the disconnection that Diouana feels in relation to her employers. Diouana barely speaks to them, her words instead relegated to a running internal monologue in which she registers her complaints and her thoughts about her situation, never giving voice to these ideas aloud. The lack of communication is an important thread in the film, as Diouana has no outlet for the ideas running through her head. She questions her very sense of self, unsure of what her place is in this family or in this unfamiliar country, and yet she has no one she can speak with, no one with whom she can share her experiences. The communication here is strictly one-way, with the whites barking orders at her, telling her what she can and can't do and what they need her to do for them, but Diouana remains blankly silent despite her active inner life.

Language barriers and the lack of literacy prevent true communication. When she receives a letter from her mother, Diouana can't respond herself because she can't write, so her white employers write the letter for her, inventing generic responses for their servant, while Diouana feels alienated from the whole process — especially since she knows her mother can't write either, which means that someone else wrote the letter for her, as well. What should be a channel of communication between mother and daughter is instead mediated by others on both ends so that the letter becomes just another form of alienation.

Sembene films Diouana's disheartening, restricted existence in stark, plain black-and-white, crisp and straightforward, with not a trace of ornamentation. There are many closeups with the young woman staring into or just past the camera as her internal monologue narrates her thoughts. The style is rough and casually realistic, but it suits the material well. Sembene renders the apartment where Diouana spends all her time in France as a blank, boring place with mostly undecorated walls, except for the African mask that Diouana gave her employers and which serves as a symbol of their surface appreciation and appropriation of African culture, as well as a reminder of Diouana's distance from her home. The sense of claustrophobia is palpable.

This is a powerful debut, dark and uncompromising in its portrait of a young African woman's increasing hopelessness. Sembene unsurprisingly portrays the white French as clueless and nasty, but despite the caricatures, the source of Diouana's suffering is actually quite subtle and multi-faceted. It arises from a general sense that she's being used, slotted into a system that's an echo of slavery, subjected to the sexualized glances of white men and the petty demands of white women, called lazy and only praised for her "exotic" cooking, denied any time or place of her own. It's an intense and affecting film, abruptly veering into tragedy at the end, offering no escape. Interesting, Sembene doesn't end things there but lets the story continue with a fascinating, richly ambiguous coda in which the white employers are forced to confront the results of their behavior.

Thursday, August 2, 2012


Buster Keaton's penultimate independent film before signing with MGM, College is not one of the silent comic's better efforts. Credited to director James W. Horne, it was, like Keaton's other silent features, actually directed almost entirely by Keaton himself, but it's a little lackluster and pedestrian compared to his other work, especially considering he'd just made his absolutely brilliant masterpiece The General.

Keaton plays a high school graduate who's eager to impress Mary (Anne Cornwall), the girl he loves, by demonstrating that he's not just a bookish intellectual but can also excel at athletics. That's certainly casting himself against type, since Keaton's primary attribute had always been his physicality and athleticism, so the fact that he spends the bulk of the film clumsily failing to pull off athletic feats might account for its lesser status. Some of the gags are amusing, but not uproariously funny by any means, and not enough of a compensation for the lack of Keaton's daring stuntwork. The middle of the film is dominated by a long section in which he tries his hand at a number of sports and track events, comically failing to clear hurdles, crashing into the pole when attempting high jumps, and best of all, doing a pole vault in which he attempts to climb the pole when it's briefly standing straight up.

It's faintly amusing, but it all lacks the clever staging and precision of Keaton's best comedy; these are simple jokes about physical incompetence and clumsiness that any slapstick comedian of the era could have pulled off, when Keaton is capable of so much more. The crew race that serves as the film's climax is also lacking in the typical excitement of Keaton's best chases and races, though there's a nice sight gag when the boat's rudder comes loose, causing Keaton to tie it to his backside and stick his rear in the water to steer. That gag pays off again after the race when Keaton's fin repeatedly slaps girls in the ass every time he turns around, causing one of them to slap him.

This film also has the dubious distinction of having the most uncomfortable blackface sequence of any of Keaton's work, with Keaton himself donning blackface to pose as a "colored waiter." It's a stupid and painfully unfunny scene that climaxes with the other, genuinely black waiters chasing after Keaton when some of his makeup rubs off.

The best part of the film is undoubtedly the very end, when a contrived rescue scenario with Mary causes Keaton to finally, belatedly display his athletic abilities. The earlier scenes of his failures now pay off as the whole world becomes an obstacle course, with Keaton dodging around pedestrians, hurdling and high-jumping over hedges, and finally pole-vaulting up through Mary's window — the latter is the one stunt Keaton himself didn't perform, subbing in an Olympic pole vaulter for that one task. This is an enjoyable and frenzied few minutes in which Keaton remakes the world as a sporting arena, taking ordinary objects and transforming them into baseball bats, discuses and javelins.

Even better, though, is the utterly unexpected and morbidly hilarious final seconds of the film, in which Keaton and Mary get married, and Keaton inserts a short little montage that rushes through the rest of their lives: coming out of the chapel together, sitting surrounded by babies and rambunctious kids, growing old together, and then a cut to a pair of side-by-side gravestones. That final image mocks and tears apart the conventional romantic ending, subverting the guy-gets-the-girl happy ending by suggesting that the end point for all this romance is ultimately only death. It's a surprisingly funny and savagely clever conclusion to a film that had otherwise been a rather slight outing for Keaton.