Gangsters, Masks and Trogylodytes

I can say that I’m going to stop doing multiple movies in each post, and I will have to admit that I am lying. To accomplish this I would have to A) Write more often; or B) Watch fewer movies. Neither is likely. My berserk schedule does not allow that much flexibility, and February has turned into a month of burdensome obligations. But never mind that:

Once Upon A Time in America (1984)

once_upon_a_time_in_americaFor instance: I’m not sure how long the average post takes me to write; six to eight hours sounds about right, unless I’m talking about my favorite movie, and then it takes more like two weeks. Now consider that in the time it took to watch Once Upon a Time in America, I could have written two-thirds of this column. Of course, watching the movie is what this is all about, so that’s a specious comparison, but I am here to say that at four hours and eleven minutes, this is not a short movie.

Nor should long movies frighten us; in the right hands, they yield amazing dividends. The only slightly shorter Andrei Rublev is an incredible experience, but it also has the allure of the exotic going for it, being set in medieval Russia, whereas Once Upon a Time rests in somewhat more familiar territory, with the early 20th century providing a taste of antiquity, but only a taste. It’s the story of four Jewish kids growing up in New York and working their way into the Underworld, eventually becoming big time bootleggers during Prohibition. By that time the kids have grown up into Robert DeNiro, James Woods, William Forsythe and James Hayden. Elizabeth McGovern, Tuesday Weld, Larry Rapp and Darlanne Fluegel round out the core cast.

Once Upon a Time in America 10The movie starts with DeNiro’s character, Noodles, on the run for snitching on Woods’ character Max (and its consequent bloodbath), and finding that a million dollars he had stashed away is mysteriously missing. The movie is going to flash forward to 1968 and then back to the 1900s, throughout Noodles’ life as he attempts to put together exactly what happened, and taking the audience along with him. Somebody tracked him down in his new life and is leaving clues for him to pick up. If the biographical parts don’t interest you – and they will – the central mystery will certainly keep you hooked as the movie progresses.

There are a lot of people that are going to argue that Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is his crowning achievement, and I would have held out for Once Upon a Time in the West, but that was before I saw Once Upon a Time in America. It’s quite possible that anyone who lobbies actively for the first two had only seen the truncated theatrical cut, slashed down to two hours and twenty minutes – almost half its running time! – a cut that Treat Williams (playing an idealistic Union boss who turns to the dark side) claimed couldn’t possibly make any sense. The version I saw had footage spliced in that was obviously from the cutting room floor, lacking the shine and gloss of finished product, and at least one lengthy scene has such an essential plot point that I was amazed it was cut. A filmgoer who had paid attention up to that point could have filled in the details later… but I’m finding more and more that filmgoers that pay attention are rare animals.

abixwBht_zps96e04c74.png~originalLeone had reportedly been offered The Godfather and turned it down, to his regret. There is a lot of the epic flashback stuff in Godfather 2 that is an obvious influence here, but Leone’s recreations of early 20th century New York are breathtaking. This is a four hour movie that only felt like three hours. It’s the longest movie on this year’s List, and I glad it’s out of the way, but I’m also very, very glad I saw it.

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Little Caesar (1931)

220px-LittleCaesarPYeah, it was with a little sarcasm that I followed up with Little Caesar, going so much in the opposite direction that it was absurd. The movie gives us the rise and fall of a crime kingpin in a slim 80 minutes. It may go by faster, but it also seems much slighter, certainly far less dense.

Edward G. Robinson delivers a star-making performance as Rico, who starts out the movie sticking up a gas station, but deciding to head to the Big City because he’s made for bigger stuff, see? Going along with him is his partner, Joe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) who sees the City as his big chance to become a dancer. Rico signs onto a mob easy enough, even though the boss (Stanley Fields) is a little concerned about Rico’s willingness to use his gun.

105659-004-3271C8DCJoe does get a job as a dancer at a night club (it was a different time, I tells ya), and slowly removes himself from Rico’s sphere. Rico does stage a hold-up at the nightclub, and winds up shooting a local Commissioner. After that, his rise to the top of the Underworld begins, and it is as meteoric as his fall, precipitated when he tries to force Joe back into his gang, and Joe’s lover convinces him to turn state’s evidence against Rico. His loyalty to Rico is, shall we say, bruised when Rico tries to kill him, but can’t bring himself to pull the trigger.

Rico will end up hiding out in a flophouse, but is roused to action by the head cop who’s been dogging him all movie long starts insulting him in the papers, leading up to a shootout and those famous words, “Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?”

vlcsnap-2016-01-31-01h13m17s081It all feels very 1931, if you catch my drift. Stilted and somewhat mannered, even given the subject matter. Sources are conflicted as to whether or not Rico is based on Al Capone or Salvatore “Sam” Cardinella, another violent Chicago mobster, but that doesn’t really matter. From this comes The Public Enemy, Scarface and any number of other gangster movies – but the real reason to watch is Edward G. Robinson. Robinson was a serious student of drama, and watching him act is always an unalloyed pleasure. He’s probably one of the finest character actors of the 20th century, and that he’s unrealized as such, and is instead relegated to the ranks of cartoon characters, ending every sentence with a “nyah!” is the true crime here.

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The Mask (1961)

CR3Ynk2VAAAzh77In the spirit of due diligence, I should reveal that I entered in a contest in December, sponsored by Classic Movie Hub and Kino-Lorber. I won the first week, and the prize was my choice of eight Kino-Lorber blu-ray titles. They were all tempting (and more than a few I have purchased in the meantime) but the only one I had never seen was The Mask, though it had haunted most of my adult life when it was the cover for RESearch magazine’s Incredibly Strange Films issue.

The Mask is notable for several reasons. First, a somewhat novel use of 3-D, especially considering that cinematic craze was over by 1955 and The Revenge of the Creature. It is also the second film by Julian Roffman, who almost single-handedly jump-started the Canadian feature film industry. It was felt that a horror movie like The Mask would be more successful commercially than his first effort, a crime film called The Bloody Brood, starring Peter Falk.

Psychiatrist Allan Barnes (Paul Stevens) has a particularly distraught patient in Michael Radin (Martin Lavut), a young archaeologist who’s been having nightmares and blackouts. Radin feels it is somehow the fault of a strange South American ritual mask he discovered recently; he claims it is exerting an unholy, murderous power over him.

The Mask 2Barnes dismisses Radin’s fears, because unlike us, he did not watch the beginning of the movie where Radin pursued and strangled a young lady. Even more distraught, Radin leaves the office, mails the mask to Barnes, and blows his brains out.

So Barnes finds himself in possession of what his deceased patient claimed had taken over and ruined his life, and like any curious person in the same room with the Necronomicon, he just has to have a look. The ominous voice in the soundtrack intoning “Put the mask on… NOW!!!” probably wasn’t helping, either.

post-269895-0-10112400-1446578737This is the point at which theater-goers were supposed to put on their own mask, ie., the red/green glasses that made 3D work in those days. Barnes finds out that wearing the mask immediately results in a bad LSD trip, full of horrifying and bizarre imagery. He also feels himself compelled to wear the mask over and over, as he slowly succumbs to the same paranoia and murderous delusions as his patient.

Now the first thing one is going to ask (particularly if “one” is me) is – so how are the bad acid trip images? And the answer is pretty darn good, actually. Roffman had gone so far as to consult avant-garde artists in the design of these sequences (ironically, he abandoned their concepts as too unrealistic, especially on his budget) and employ groundbreaking electronic music. These parts are refreshingly forward-thinking. The images are strange and actually unnerving, aided immeasurably by the fact that Roffman uses his 3D very constructively, even when things aren’t flying out or reaching toward you from the screen. Objects in the foreground and the background provide nice parallax scrolling, for instance. The Kino-Lorber blu-ray, in association with the 3-D Film Archive, is sharp and flawless and produced for people with 3-D players and TVs, neither of which apply to me. The trip sequences are supplied in red/blue anaglyph as an extra, but, alas, not as a part of the 2-D presentation. The anaglyph presentation is really strong, as well – but you’ll need to provide your own glasses.

lobby-card-the-mask-1961

Sad as this is, it does force the poorer viewers among us (like me) to judge The Mask on its own merits. It has a reputation as being slow-moving, but hey, welcome to low-budget genre films in the 50s and 60s. Most people watching The Mask came to see the 3D sequences, and under those circumstances, anything not mask-related is doing to be greeted with impatience. Bereft of that gimmick, we can see The Mask as it really is: sightly clunky, repetitious and padded, but no less so than a lot of its contemporaries. And those mask sequences, appearing at roughly a half hour, 45 minutes, and then ten minutes before the end – are really something. I’m unsure of the disc authoring voodoo necessary to make such things happen, but I really wish they could have used the branching capabilities of the technology to make a 2-D/anaglyph viewing of the movie possible, just like in the theaters.

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Bone Tomahawk (2015)

BtomahawkThis was getting quite a bit of buzz at the end of the year, and the premise is pretty unique, so I knew I was going to have to watch it, even if just for the cast. And man, what a cast; I am going to single out casting director Matthew Maisto right here for some lavish praise.

Because right at the beginning, we meet two cut-throat western bandits (literally – the very first image of the movie is a man getting his throat cut) played by Sid Haig and David Arquette. And dammit, any movie that starts out with Sid Haig is okay in my book. Not that these guys are going to last long – while vamoosing because they hear horses approaching, they blunder through what is obviously an Indian burial ground of some sort, and before you know it, Sid is festooned with arrows.

BONE TOMAHAWKBut having had our nerves jangled, let’s go over to the little frontier town of Bright Hope several days later, where cattle boss Arthur (Patrick Wilson!) is recovering from a broken leg. His wife Samantha (Lili Simmons) is the backup for the local drunken doctor (luckily for Arthur) and she is called to the jail one night to tend a drifter who got into an altercation with Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell!), and got shot in the leg. That drifter is David Arquette, so we’re pretty sure something bad is in the offing.

The next morning a local stable boy is dead and disemboweled, the horses he was tending are missing, and so is the drifter, the Deputy, and Samantha. The local educated Indian, the Professor (Zahn McClarnon) identifies the unique bone-tipped arrow left behind as belonging to “The Trogylodytes”, a tribe the other tribes leave strictly alone because they don’t want to die. He points the way to a series of canyons where the Trogs make their home, and a sadly small party of Hunt, Arthur, a dandified Indian fighter named Brooder (Matthew Fox!) and the “backup deputy” Chicory (Richard Jenkins!) set out to rescue their townsfolk.

bone_7This core ensemble works so incredibly well together that I yearned for more adventures with them. Matthew Fox’s appropriately-named Brooder is a fun departure for him, but the real revelation is Richard Jenkins as Bone Tomahawk‘s Walter Brennan character. Unrecognizable in the role, Jenkins very easily steals the show from the other three, and that is no small accomplishment. It wasn’t until almost halfway through the movie I realized who he was!

bonetomaPatrick Wilson’s Arthur has been given an interesting obstacle for his character to overcome: that broken leg. No devil from hell is going to stop him from rescuing his wife, but the constant re-injuring and threat of gangrene puts a particular edge to his struggle.

Oh, and the Trogylodytes, it turns out, are cannibals, so in the last half-hour it turns into an Ruggero Deodato movie. There’s a reason I can’t expect to see more movies with those four characters.

(To return to the cast once more, I should mention that among the citizens of Bright Hope can be seen – briefly – James Tolkan, Sean Young and Michael Parê. Good work, Mr. Maisto!)

bone-tomahawkThis is S. Craig Zahler’s first movie as a director (and his second as screenwriter) and it does nothing but make you hungry for the next one. The dialogue is so damned good, the characters so well-delineated, that the movie was a genuine pleasure to discover.

Also, if the Universe could continue to cough up two new westerns a year starring Kurt Russell (and maybe Sid Haig, too), I would be very appreciative.

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Zéro de conduite (1933)

Zero_de_conduiteSo why not finish up with another story of savages? Or more appropriately, I started with the longest movie on the list, I might as well finish up with the shortest, at only 44 minutes.

Zero for Conduct is about four boys in a repressive boarding school, their lives little better than that of prisoners, who cook up an act of rebellion during the school’s annual celebration of its very existence. This is Jean Vigo’s third film – he only made four – and it was thought so scandalous and subversive that the French censor banned it until 1947. Vigo himself was quite the anarchist, and it shows in his movies to this point, a mixture of irreverence and surrealism. The new schoolteacher, Hugeut (Jean Dasté), little more than a boy himself, draws a caricature of a fellow teacher that animates itself; the dominating headmaster is a bearded midget (Delphin), and in the annual celebration, the grandstand full of dignitaries is quite obviously a bunch of literal dummies.

Zero_de_conduiteZero is tagged as influential, with many descendants like The 400 Blows quoting it. There is at least one sequence of thrilling, otherworldly beauty; possibly the first “shit” ever uttered in a French film (twice), and, sadly, the feeling that this might be a longer project trimmed down due to time and money. In any case, certainly worth a watch, definitely since I’ll soon be watching Vigo’s final film, L’Atalante.

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Playing Catch-Up 4

Crash (1994)

crash posterWhy, yes, why SHOULDN’T I start the (hopefully) last of these compressed reviews with another odd, hard-to-categorize movie? Is it not traditional, at this point?

The 90s were a strange time for David Cronenberg. His acclaimed adaptation of the play M. Butterfly was bookended by movie versions of two “unfilmable” books – William S. Burroughs’ taboo-busting Naked Lunch, and this equally sui generis piece, just as controversial, by J. G. Ballard.

James Spader plays James Ballard (yes, that’s his name in the novel, too), a film director who is a little too prone to trying to do organizational work while driving. This results in his head-on collision with another car, a dead man through his windshield, and the sight of Helen (Holly Hunter) in the other car, her breast exposed. He recovers in the same hospital as Helen, and that is where he also meets Vaughan (Elias Koteas), a lab-coated fellow walking with Helen during her therapy. Vaughan is carrying color photos of other peoples’ injuries and seems very interested in the metal sticking out of Ballard’s fractured leg.

james-spader-and-elias-coteas-in-crashHelen and Ballard meet again while examining their respective wrecked cars, and Ballard finds himself following Helen into Vaughan’s world of people fetishizing car wrecks, the violent intrusion of hurtling metal into the human body. Vaughan restages famous auto wrecks with stunt drivers (we first see this as James Dean’s death is recreated in front of an admiring crowd in bleachers, like a Little League game).  Ballard and Helen integrate into a strange group of fetishists – a cult, really, under Vaughan’s guidance – which includes Rosanna Arquette, practically armored in a set of braces and harnesses holding – perhaps even cradling – her damaged body together. It even begins coloring Ballard’s troubled sex life with his wife, Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger).

crash71The movie is a series of episodes which somehow does not feel episodic, but more like the story is slowly gathering speed and headed toward an inevitable collision; the sex becomes more polymorphous and perverse as the story continues. Catherine and Ballard are both shown having brief sexual flings before his accident, but neither seems as satisfying to them as the dark encounters that come afterward, starting with Catherine talking dirty to Ballard about Vaughan during sex, and progressing through the almost inevitable coupling of Ballard and Vaughan. The box copy uses the word “omnisexual” to describe the movie’s characters, and that seems more fitting than a simple “bisexual” – these folks are moving beyond gender and into flesh being penetrated by metal at high velocities. Crash is possibly the most un-erotic of erotic movies, willfully perverse – and absolutely unique and fascinating.

Also, naughty Holly Hunter is the best Holly Hunter.

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Lady Snowblood (1973 & 1974)

This may surprise you young’uns, but some of us actually knew about Lady Snowblood before Quentin Tarantino became a thing.

A couple of years earlier in Japan, the Lone Wolf and Cub movies had done good business, so making a movie based on another kinetic manga series written by Kazuo Koike only made sense. Even for that writer, the setup is unusually dense: in the waning years of the 19th century, as Japan ramps up its drive to become a major military power, four criminals are running a scam on a farming village, taking money to supposedly excuse the local young men from the draft. A new elementary school teacher arrives with his wife and child; the villains frame him as a conscription officer, and the villagers murder him and his boy. The wife is raped and kidnapped; she eventually kills her tormentor, but is arrested while hunting down the other three. She seduces every guard in the prison until she finally gives birth to the daughter that will carry on her vengeance, naming her Snowblood.

Whew.

Film_790_LadySnowblood1_originalThe first movie, simply named Lady Snowblood, gives us that origin story, her training as a swordswoman, and her hunting down of those last three villains, twenty years after the fact. She’s grown up to be Meiko Kaji, capitalizing on her success in the Stray Cat Rock movies and Female Convict Scorpion Jailhouse 41. Snowblood’s gimmick is her sword hidden in an umbrella – we first get to see it as she plies her trade as an assassin while tracking down her three targets.

The only real problem I have with the movie is director Toshiya Fujita’s over-reliance on handheld camera work, which is generally pointed out – favorably – as giving the movie a documentary feel. All it does for me is remind me that there is a movie camera in the streets of 1895 Japan. That’s a small complaint, though, as the story barrels along. And barrel it does; Fujita plays fast and loose with the timeline, which keeps things interesting, and the challenges to our heroine varied. This movie is a major inspiration for Kill Bill Vol. 1, and watching the Criterion blu-ray it is possible to go Um hm, I recognize that now at various points. That Fujita doesn’t seem to mind cribbing an idea or two himself only seems appropriate in that context.

screenshot_2_18861Fujita had been previously known for making popular movies about disaffected youth, which was something of a hot ticket in Japanese cinema at the time (note their inclusion in a couple of Zatoichi movies made in the same time period). That does color the presentation of the story in ways interesting enough to differentiate them from the Lone Wolf movies.

For the next year’s Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance, we have the same personnel, though in the extras of the Criterion blu-ray, screenwriter Kazuo Kamimura says, somewhat proudly, he strayed from the manga. I have no idea how true that is, but I can testify that Lady Snowblood all but vanishes from her own movie for a large portion of its running time.

Lady Snowblood 2 beach fightSnowblood is captured and condemned to hanging for her various murders, but she is sprung by the head of the Secret Police, so she can go undercover as a maid to the house of an anarchist rabble-rouser and find a secret document which would spell disaster for the current government if it were ever made public. Snowblood understandably finds the anarchist and his cause much more sympathetic than her murderous and corrupt employer. One machination leads to another, the anarchist is arrested, Snowblood spends the next hour or so recovering from a gunshot wound, only occasionally peeking in to witness the plot major involving marital betrayal, the black plague, entire ghettos burned down, and other antisocial activities before picking up her umbrella and Snowblooding a bunch of assholes.

ladysnowblood2-hr_1349613056_crop_550x368Now, admittedly the only Koike series I’ve read in depth is the Lone Wolf and Cub series, and this is a device he does employ – a human interest story taking front and center before Itto Ogami clears the board, but at least his son Daigoro is usually more involved – having your solo heroine sit out most of the story, only cropping up time to time to look sad is not terribly dynamic.

So I fear I’m rather ambivalent toward the two movies, though obviously I find the first one much more satisfying. That one, at least, I can recommend.

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Andrei Rublev (1966)

Andrei Rublev poster 1I admit that I sneaked my way into the Andrei Tarkovsky camp, with Solaris, reportedly the most un-Tarkovsky of his movies. It took me a bit longer to seek out more, probably because finding more takes some effort, compared to other directors’ work (though not, happily, as hard as finding copies of the work of Klimov or Ptushko!). So when Andrei Rublev was all but thrust into my hands, it became sort of an imperative, though I will be honest and also admit that the three hours and forty minute runtime was… daunting.

That being admitted, I must follow up with my initial reaction, which was Idiot! Why did you wait so long?

First, for the non-history majors: Andrei Rublev is considered to be the greatest of the medieval icon painters in the Russian Orthodox Church in the late 14th to early 15th century.

Andrei Rublev_PrologueNow that I’ve told you this, I will now tell you that the first section of this movie begins with a medieval thinker who is hurriedly attaching himself to a hot air balloon made of animal skins and the like before a mob of villagers stop him. He manages to fly for a few ecstatic minutes before he crashes to earth.

This segment is never brought up again, and has no apparent connection with the rest of the movie.

And that was when I knew I was going to like it.

maxresdefaultThe rest of the movie is going to follow Rublev (Anitoliy Solonitsyn) through several great swaths of his life… sort of. How he becomes assistant to another famous icon painter , Theophanes the Greek, with whom he will argue about theology; his commission to paint the Last Judgement in a church in Vladimir, outside Moscow, and his delaying the task for months because he does not see the point in terrifying believers, finally painting a great feast, just in time to survive the sacking of Vladimir by the villainous Tatars, in alliance with a treasonous Russian prince. His forsaking of painting and a vow of silence sworn to atone for his killing of a man during the attack, and his witnessing of the casting of a massive bell for the Crown Prince, which will rekindle his faith and show him the necessity of using his God-given talent.

andrei-rublevYou can rest assured that in the attempt to gain a worldwide audience, this movie was cut to shreds, and showings in New York resulted in reviews “comparing it unfavorably to Doctor Zhivago.” I read that with a bit of satisfaction – not because Andrei Rublev got ripped, but because that was a comparison I had made myself, while the movie was in progress. There are great swaths of story where Rublev vanishes from our sight (rather like Love Song of Vengeance, but it leads to a higher level of storytelling than that). Both movies are about a man buffeted about by history and forces beyond his control – a major difference, though, is Rublev doesn’t try to paper over that history with a love story (a love story based on betrayal, but that’s a complaint for another time) (obviously, I am no great fan of Zhivago). Rublev feels like it is truly more about Mother Russia than Zhivago could ever hope to be, its ability to withstand invasion after invasion, sea change after sea change, yet it and its people still remain.

screen-shot-2014-08-26-at-4-53-16-pmThe imagery is outstanding, the black-and-white cinematography often reminding me of Sven Nykvist’s work, and that is not a comparison I make lightly. Andrei Rublev‘s nearly four-hour runtime rumbles along like a glacier, but it truly feels like it’s earned it. Even that lengthy final section, with the forging of the bell, delivers an emotional payload that proves entirely logical in completing the story. There are a lot of overly-long movies in this world, but Andrei Rublev is not really one of them.

(Also, you need to see this movie for the Bawdy Jester – that guy is magnificent.)

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Playing Catch-Up 3

Performance (1970)

performanceWhat the hell is with me starting these posts off with movies that possess impenetrable narratives? Is it an unconscious drive to get “the hard one” out of the way first, so the rest of the column flows smoothly?

If I ever figure that out, I’ll let you know.

James Fox (cast against type and blowing doors out with his performance, pun unintended) plays Chas, an enforcer with a London protection racket that enjoys his work way too much. When he takes it upon himself to discipline an old rival, the door is opened for assault, murder, and suddenly Chas is on the run from his own mob. While searching for a place to lie low, he lucks onto a flat being rented in the basement of reclusive retired rock star Turner (Mick Jagger). Mind games ensue.

Performance takes its time setting up Chas’ world and how he moves in it, so the sudden immersion into the drugged-out anarchy of Turner’s world is exactly as puzzling and off-putting as it is to Chas; at first Turner refuses to give him refuge, then reverses that decision. Though Chas tries to pass himself off unsuccessfully as a musician on tour, one of Turner’s live-in lovers, Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) will tell him that Turner is keeping him around because the musician “lost his devil” and is seeking to resurrect that driving force with Chas’ presence. To that end, Chas is given psylocybin mushrooms without his knowledge (“That’s insane!” says a surprised Turner when Pherber tells him how much), and the two men’s characters begin to bleed into each other.

053-anita-palenberg-theredlistIt is damnably hard to categorize Performance, if that’s even possible or, more to the point, desirable. It is an intriguing time capsule for London in that period, blossoming counterculture and Kray Twins gangsters. References to Jorge Luis Borges abound (in this world, even the gangsters read Borges), and, indeed, this may be one of the best adaptations of Borges’ work that wasn’t actually written by Borges himself. The blending of Chas and Turner is probably best represented by the movie suddenly becoming a music video for Jagger’s “Memo from Turner” (a definite high point) in which Turner becomes the head of the mob Chas has left. Afterwards, Chas is more rock star than enforcer – even the second of Turner’s live-ins, a French waif named Lucy (Michele Breton), who was before frightened by Chas, is now sleeping with him. Turner, on the other hand, has become uncertain and aware of encroaching doom, resulting in one of those final movie shots that has no possible explanation, but which people will nonetheless argue about for years, and have.

Performance was shot in 1968, but delayed for two years after a test screening resulted in the wife of a studio executive vomiting in disgust. History doesn’t record what it was that pushed her tender tummy into revolt, but there is a lot of transgressive stuff here, not just the sex, drugs and rock-and-roll. For instance, the homosexual tendencies of the gangsters, which starts out subtle but becomes much more obvious and matter-of-fact as the movie moves on.

pallenberg-and-cammell-425Co-director Donald Cammell took the picture for re-cutting (the other co-director, Nicholas Roeg, was in Australia filming Walkabout), and what he returned with is the Performance we are familiar with today, with its opening scenes now possessed of almost avant-garde cross-cutting, and noodling about by Jack Nietzsche on one of the first Moog synthesizers.

Performance is definitely not for all markets, but it is novel and intriguing. I remember many a midnight movie showing billing it as a rock movie, and can only imagine the stunned and puzzled stoners staggering out of the theater into the dead of night.

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Sunset Boulevard (1950)

swierzy_sunsetbvWhich brings us to yet another unique picture. Unique if only for the fact that the story is, rather famously, a flashback told by a corpse floating in a Hollywood swimming pool.

The corpse is Joe Gillis (William Holden) a down-on-his-luck screenwriter desperately trying to get up enough money that he can save his car from the finance company (in L.A., if you don’t have a car, you might as well be a corpse floating in a swimming pool). Circumstances lead him to concealing the car in the garage of what he thinks is an abandoned mansion; the mansion is, in fact inhabited by silent film queen Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and her devoted manservant Max (Eric von Stroheim). Once Norma discovers Joe is a writer, she hires him to rewrite her comeback script, Salome, moving him into a garage apartment, then the mansion, and finally, into her bedroom.

evesunset_4Joe’s downfall and sideways-seduction into the easy life of a gigolo is countered by a chance relationship with studio reader Betty (Nancy Olsen), who spots a worthwhile section of one of Joe’s old scripts, and he begins to meet with her clandestinely, to collaborate on a project that could revive Joe’s career and move him out of Norma’s mansion. Naturally, Joe and Betty are going to fall in love, and Norma is going to find out, and that is going to lead to Joe burning all his bridges, to Betty for her own good, and to Norma for his own good – which will lead to Joe getting three slugs in the back and one of the most iconic final scenes in movie history.

Chad Plambeck told me that if you consider Sunset Boulevard a film noir, then Joe is the villain, but if you approach it as a horror movie, Norma is the villain. This is perfectly true, but I hold that what writer/director Billy Wilder has created here is an absolutely novel genre, throwing light onto a subject that would be harvested again and again in series like The Twilight Zone and the book Hollywood Babylon – a sort of tabloid scandal character study shot through with melancholy and condemnation.

Sunset-Boulevard-1950-Wallpapers-2The amazing thing is it exists at all, and that Paramount studios was willing – and in fact, apparently pleased – to be a character in its own movie. Cecil B. deMille himself has an extended cameo (in which it has to be admitted that he comes off pretty damned well, in a movie so critical of the starmaker machinery). Wilder pretty much invents meta-fiction here, with Norma watching her old silent movies, which we are told later were directed by Max – and the movie being shown is Queen Kelly (1929), starring Gloria Swanson and directed by Eric von Stroheim. Norma has frequent bridge parties attended by friends of the old silent days, and I am ashamed I had to look up two of them (Anna Q. Nilsson and H.B. Warner). Buster Keaton I managed to recognize on my own.

(I have to mention Jack Webb, because he’s Jack Webb, playing the most un-Jack Webb character I’ve ever seen, Joe’s assistant director pal Artie Green, effervescent, constantly smiling, and Betty’s fiance – oops! Sorry Jack!)

61730-050-981B6E1BRoger Ebert said of Bette Davis that the smartest career move she ever made was getting older, and that also goes for William Holden. This was his most significant role in the 11 years since his breakthrough, Golden Boy, and his experience in the intervening years has tempered him (and Good Lord, can the man wear a tuxedo. Not everyone can pull off white tie and tails, and he does so with panache). His career only rose from here, and it is in recent years that I find myself really appreciating his work in the 60s and 70s, and the way he so effortlessly projected a sort of vulnerable, weary masculinity in his roles.

But there is no denying that this movie belongs to Gloria Swanson, who was only 50 at the time the movie was made, but was harshly lit to make her look older – talk about bravery in an actress! She applies exactly as much over-the-top to Norma Desmond as is required of a character who considers her life to be one long silent film. Alternately delusional, grandiose and pathetic, this is a role for the ages. and of course, Hollywood being what it is, it offered her nothing afterwards except different versions of Norma Desmond.

Sometimes the meta is a little too close to reality.

Buy Sunset Boulevard on Amazon

Ms. 45 (1981)

ms_45A very common thread in my postings here is “Why did it take me so long to get to this movie?” but this time the cause is easier to determine – it simply wasn’t available for some time. I had a close friend who ran one of those grey market VHS mail-order services and for literally years his big seller was Ms. 45, off a videotape he’d bought even further back. He’s since moved on to less grey pursuits, but it wasn’t until only recently that Drafthouse Films put out a legit version of it on blu-ray, a strange thing for a movie that is praised in many movie history books as a classic.

Zoe Lund (Tamerlis) plays Thana, a mute woman working in a small sweatshop in New York’s garment district. On one particularly bad day she is raped twice – once in an alley (by director Abel Ferrara) and then again in her apartment, where she gains the upper hand on the burglar and beats him to death with an iron.

maxresdefaultInstead of going to the police or her admittedly terrifying landlady (Editta Sherman), she hacks up the body in her bathtub and stores the trash-bag wrapped pieces in her refrigerator. She carries the dead man’s gun around with her as she distributes the body parts around the city, and winds up killing a cat-calling schmoe who was trying to chase her down with one of the bags; after that, Thana’s mind begins to go seriously south as she tracks down males she feels are predacious and takes them out of the gene pool forcibly, even walking though Central Park at night to find targets. Her choices become more questionable as her mind deteriorates, leading up to a slow-motion massacre at a Halloween party where it is deemed good enough that the recipients of her bullets are simply male.

9401851.0This was Ferrara’s follow-up to his proto-slasher film, The Driller-Killer (which predates Friday the 13th by a year or more). Doing a distaff version of 1972’s Death Wish is kind of a no-brainer for exploitation filmmakers, but Ferrara’s approach to the subject matter is what has helped its reputation endure for decades. The disposal of the body parts – a continuing thread throughout the movie – is handled with much dark humor and cleverness. I would normally say that the movie provides a good document of the streets of good old bad old New York, which it does – but a cursory search of YouTube will net you videos of women being catcalled and propositioned in the street, and those videos are a few months old, not years. Nothing has changed.

ms-45Ms. 45 is often mentioned in the same breath as Bo Arne Vibenius’ Thriller, A Cruel Picture, another iconic rape-revenge movie, but Thriller is a lot more interested in brutalizing the viewer as much as its protagonist, and the revenge segment of the story feels episodic and unfocused. Ms .45′s vengeance cuts a much broader and less discerning swath, edging it into the realm of horror movies, and its episodic nature feels more like a solid directorial choice. I doubt I’ll ever watch Thriller again, but Ms .45, equal parts Death Wish, Taxi Driver and still its own creature – possesses more than enough artistry to deserve another look.

Buy Ms. 45 on Amazon

Boss (1975)

MV5BMTc4MzE1MzM2M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzY5NDcxMw@@._V1_SY317_CR4,0,214,317_AL_The question is how, in this day and age, do you distribute a movie with a deliberately inflammatory title? The answer turns out to be very simple, in that you simply excise the inflammatory part. You know the title of this is Boss Nigger. I know the title of this is Boss Nigger. once you get into the opening credits, the movie certainly knows its title is Boss Nigger. But all things considered, I’m perfectly happy just calling it Boss.

Fred “The Hammer” Williamson and D’Urville Martin are black bounty hunter in the post-Civil War West (The Hammer is only referred to as “Boss”), and they find out one of the members of their latest group of bounties is carrying a letter from the corrupt Mayor (R.G. Armstrong!) of a nearby town, naming the bandit the new Sheriff. Boss rides into town and claims the office as his own, hoping to flush out their big bounty, the gang leader Jed Clayton (William Smith).

imagesThis was released a full year after Blazing Saddles worked a similar setup for laughs, and Boss works it from the opposite direction; most of the townsfolk are dismayed that the new Sheriff is not at all white, and Martin’s gleeful posting and enforcement of fines related to racial epithets and other forms of rudeness is played for any comic possibilities; the oppressed become the oppressors for a bit, then Boss remembers it has a story to tell. The script, written by Williamson, meanders too much for its own good, but is fairly entertaining in a weekend afternoon sort of way.

Boss

He’s also carrying Steve McQueen’s gun from “Wanted Dead or Alive” – Coolness Factor +10

Williamson’s schtick may have been somewhat limited, but he is very good at it. Martin, Armstrong and Smith are all reliable character actors. Probably the most valuable player of all, though, is veteran director Jack Arnold, who at this stage of his career was directing mainly episode TV. There’s a steady workmanship that keeps Boss moving even when the script is being improbable, and if there is a negative, it’s that Boss feels like a TV movie, with a little more swearing and more dropping of the N-word. A lot of outlets, including the IMDb, describe Boss as a comedy, but a Shakespearean body count at the end – all the bad guys, damn near all the sympathetic characters, black and white, and even Boss’ survival in question – sorta belies that.

Entertaining enough, and a welcome change to the typical blaxploitation formula; but alas, no classic.

Buy Boss on Amazon

 

 

 

Playing Catch-up 2

Inland Empire (2006)

inland-empire-version6-movie-posterTime has been an issue with updating here, to be sure, but I also have to admit that the concept of having to say something coherent about David Lynch’s last theatrical movie to date possesses a reverse magnetism that does not exactly draw me to the keyboard.

This much I can tell you: Laura Dern is Nikki Grace, a Hollywood actress having a bit of a lull in her career. Her comeback movie is a script based on a… I think it’s maybe Polish?… movie called Vier Seben,  which was never released. It is reportedly cursed, causing the death of its stars. Nikki begins falling into the character of her role, Susan Blue, and scenes from the original movie keep inserting themselves into her life, and she even sometimes finds herself in the real-life incidents that inspired the original story and there’s some prostitutes and a woman who claims she was hypnotized into stabbing someone to death with a screwdriver and oh hell I give up.

This movie was born when Lynch called up his pal Dern and asked her if she’d like to “Come over and experiment”. Lynch was playing with the new generation of digital video cameras and kept writing short scenes to film while he messed around with the new technology and discovered the amazing amount of freedom the smaller, versatile cameras allowed. The scenes had nothing to do with each other until Lynch started sensing connecting tissue between them and suddenly we’re all sitting through three hours of what the living fuck.

Inland_Empire_17-720x340Some people were turned off by the digital photography. Some didn’t like sitting through three hours of what the living fuck. I can understand all these stances, which is more than I can say for the plot – if such ever existed – for Inland Empire.

2013-06-15-inland-empire-rabbitsI like Lynch. I like that he’s challenging. I like that you absolutely cannot intellectualize his movies, you have to respond to them on a deeper, instinctual, intuitive level. Needless to say, given my babbling, Inland Empire is a major example of this. Ask stars Laura Dern and Justin Theroux what the movie’s about, and they are not going to be able to give you an answer. I’ve seen some remarkable analyses, and now I need to find those again, now that I’ve seen the movie because at the time it seemed like hallucinatory babbling. It may have been.

Past that, the terrifying existential TV show with the bunnies, impromptu production numbers, that damned red lampshade from Mulholland Drive… I got no idea. Watch at your own risk. I actually sort of  prefer just experiencing and surviving this sort of thing to picking it apart.

Here’s the Italian trailer. I don’t think English would have helped.

I’d tell you to buy Inland Empire on Amazon, but it’s out of print in America

Memento (2000)

MV5BMTc4MjUxNDAwN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDMwNDg3OA@@._V1_SX640_SY720_As you’ve figured out by now, it takes me years to get to some movies.

Guy Pearce plays Leonard, a man who a) is vengefully tracking down the burglar who raped and killed his wife, and B) after that assault (and his own injury) is left unable to form new memories. His life is now a patchwork of tattoos and polaroid instant pictures annotated in Sharpie, as he continues the quest, each day starting fresh.  His current life is complicated even more by Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), who claims to be an undercover cop helping him (though his polaroid portrait says “Don’t believe his lies”) and Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) who may be his lover but maybe not or maybe she’s the femme fatale in this strangest of films noir?

mementoDirector Christopher Nolan made quite the splash with this, only his second feature. His first, the rarely seen Following, was released on disc by the Criterion Collection a couple of years ago, and features an earlier version of Memento‘s fractured timeline and layered deceptions. This is one of the few times I have regretted watching a director’s films in chronological order, because Following prepared me for the twists and turns of Memento. In the final analysis, that’s no big deal, really, because Memento is still quite remarkable in its concept and execution. The setup is similar to Gene Wolfe’s Soldier in the Mist – truly the most elegant example of Wolfe’s penchant for the unreliable narrator – but admirably trimmed down to tell a complete and intriguing story, even if that story is told in reverse order.

I love Nolan when he’s left to his own devices. He rewards and in fact demands attention be paid. There is apparently a remake being planned. You can despair at this new lack of originality in Hollywood, or you can stop and realize that there were three versions of The Maltese Falcon made in ten years. The only real difference is that they stopped when they got it right – and Nolan got it right the first time.

Buy Memento on Amazon

Ace in the Hole (1951)

I thought I was being all kinds of clever when I posted this Tweet:

Capture

Ace-in-the-hole-posterOh, quite quickly was I informed that this was not a good movie for that purpose, no, not at all. Perhaps I would like to try some other Billy Wilder movie, like Sabrina, perhaps?

This is just one more example of why we need a font that signifies sarcasm. Like this was my first Billy Wilder movie.

Kirk Douglas plays Chuck Tatum, a down-on-his-luck expatriate New York journalist who talks his way into a job at a small New Mexico newspaper. A year later, he’s going stir crazy, unable to find the big story that will jump-start his career and get him back into the big papes. Assigned to cover a “Rattlesnake Festival” at a nearby small town, he stumbles upon his big chance: Leo (Richard Benedict), the owner of a cheesy diner and trading post, while mucking about in a nearby ruined cliff dwelling for “genuine Indian artifacts” has been trapped in a cave-in.

By the force of his own brash personality and a cagey partnership with the local corrupt sheriff, Tatum quickly takes possession of this human interest story (the original title of the film), even to the point of interfering with the rescue process by forcing the crew to take a more laborious, time-consuming approach to the trapped man. Tatum needs the story to play out over a week or more for maximum drama and circulation.

ace-in-the-holeHis manipulation extends to the owner’s wife Lorraine (Jan Sterling, holding her own and occasionally surpassing Douglas), who first sees her husband’s entombment as a chance to split a no-win situation for her, then cashes in on the media frenzy that follows Tatum’s ballyhoo, charging for parking and even admitting a carnival to entertain the flood of bystanders and gawkers crowding the area. Tatum, who started out insufferable, only becomes worse as his power over the story is consolidated, but the inevitable outcome of such hubris is not long in coming. Leo contracts pneumonia and Tatum’s conscience comes roaring back, dooming him as he discovers his insistence on drilling through the cliff to rescue the man has rendered any chance of a speedier recovery impossible.

Ace in the Hole is based on the 1925 death of spelunker Floyd Collins and its ensuing media frenzy, and it may represent Wilder at his most cynical, but certainly at his most perceptive: this movie presents Truth with a capital T and it has aged damned little over the course of 65 years. A few hours after Leo’s death, the crowded field between the highway and the mesa is empty, except for windblown garbage and Leo’s mournful father – Lorraine hitched a ride out in the exodus.

bw-Ace-in-the-HolePerhaps as contrition on my own part after that duplicitous first Tweet that caused so much concern on the part of so many, I bookended the experience with this Tweet:

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Buy Ace in the Hole on Amazon

In the Heat of the Night (1967)

In-the-heat-of-the-night-cartelSpeaking of finding oneself in the present day…

A nighttime patrol finds a dead man in the sleepy streets of Sparta, Georgia late one night. An impromptu dragnet nets an unfamiliar black man waiting at the train station, and as it is 1967 in the Deep South, he is immediately taken into custody. However, Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Portier) is a homicide detective from Philadelphia, just trying to get home. When local Police Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) calls Tibbs’ superior to confirm his identity, said superior offers Tibbs’ services to the Chief, seeing as how there’s a homicide and all. Gillespie doesn’t want Tibbs’ help, and Tibbs would just like to be rid of this town and its cracker population – but the real sticking point is the dead man was a rich industrialist from Chicago who was planning to build a factory in Sparta, and his widow (Lee Grant) threatens to cancel the project unless the “Negro officer” remains on the case.

This movie was very much a cause celebre in my youth, and how the hell I managed to go so long without actually seeing it is one of those puzzles I’d probably need Virgil Tibbs’ talents to unwind. The pedigree of the film is impressive, even outside the two stars: Directed by Norman Jewison, written by Sterling Silliphant, cinematography by Haskell Wexler edited by Hal Ashby, music by Quincy Jones. It’s one of the few winners of the Best Picture Academy Award that I can totally agree with (Steiger, Silliphant and Ashby also took home statues. But not Portier. Don’t be absurd, he wasn’t even nominated).

IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger, 1967

The script never takes the easy route, and fully exploits the thorny and dangerous difficulties of the set-up. Tibbs is playing Sherlock Holmes without a Watson, against a roomful of Lestrades; Gillespie twice makes the wrong arrest based on partial information. Even then, it’s the character of Gillespie that actually makes the story work so well. Though he verges on stereotype several times (and the rest of the police force is squarely in that category), Gillespie is determined to do the right thing, and however unwillingly, becomes a strong ally. He’s almost as much an outsider in the town as Tibbs, unpopular and threatened with dismissal by a City Council that’s dismayed their Chief didn’t shoot Tibbs when he returned  a rich white planter’s slap.

In-the-Heat-5-Slap(That is one spoiler I’m glad I avoided all these years. Evidence points to the murder victim having been on the planters’ property the night of his death, and when the planter (James Patterson) realizes he’s being interrogated, he slaps the uppity nigra and Tibbs immediately slaps hims back, stunning not only the planter, but Gillespie and the black manservant. That scene must have hit like a thunderbolt in urban theaters in 1967, and I’m glad I had no idea it was coming because it is fucking awesome.)

Steiger is nicely complex as Gillespie. Sidney Portier, as ever, is America’s foremost portrayer of capable black men in difficult circumstances (also in the aftermath of that slap scene is the revelation that Tibbs is concentrating on the planter as a suspect to “bring that fat cat down”, and Gillespie’s quietly surprised “You’re just like the rest of us, man.” It’s a brave script on many levels). Portier would return to the character twice more, in They Call Me Mister Tibbs! and The Organization, and I’m curious enough to check those out. Warren Oates, as the officer who discovers the body, arrests Tibbs, and eventually becomes a suspect himself, continues to hone his reputation as America’s foremost portrayer of hapless motherfuckers that you somehow still can’t bring yourself to hate.

inTHOTNThere’s no real open reconciliation between Gillespie and Tibbs, no sudden buddy-buddy, but there is a quiet, realistic respect between the two at the end that feels earned. It really is a stunning, vital piece of 60s cinema, and I have no idea how they managed to make a TV show out of it. Nor am I that interested, even though the cast is full of actors I like; the movie has made that much of an impression on me.

Buy In the Heat of the Night on Amazon

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Do I have to?

Well, people were asking me 15 minutes after I had seen it what I thought, so yeah, I guess I have to. The response given to these people was, “It didn’t suck,” and it doesn’t. But I like to let a movie percolate for a day or so before I trust my opinion.

It didn’t suck.

There’s a lot of static on the Interwebs complaining about the *ahem* lack of originality in certain aspects of the story. The question here, I think, is have you been paying attention over the last ten years or so? The current marketplace does not reward originality. It often actively punishes it. Therefore, carbon paper is the preferred method of moviemaking. I’m not really surprised that The Force Awakens relies on “the same, just bigger” for its action setpieces. There is a memo somewhere mandating this, I’m sure.

By concentrating on rhyming instances, though, you are missing the very strength of this new chapter: an abundance of heart, and the very, very welcome return of humor to this universe. The new characters are strong and deserving of our attention. The return of – literally – older characters helps that medicine go down just fine, thank you, and provides more than a little resonance with our own youth.

maxresdefaultI was 20 years old when the first Star Wars came out. I stood in line for hours on its second day of release, thankfully in the air conditioning of the lower level of Houston’s Galleria. 38 years later, here I am again, standing in line. There are some parts of our dystopian future that do not suck; I had bought my ticket in advance and was only waiting for the doors to open. Fifteen minutes instead of hours.

So I am deeply aware of the magic that happened that day at the beginning of Summer 1977. I know, I know, you wanted that feeling back. You wanted to leave the theater feeling the same way your younger self did, dazzled and intoxicated by the possibilities of cinema bent to a compelling story.

To engage in more acquisition from an earlier property, you can’t go home again.

Star Wars (I still refuse to call it A New Hope) hit like a thermal detonator because there was nothing else like it in a comparatively parched movie landscape. As Jessica Ritchey brilliantly reminds us over at rogerebert.com, Fox’s big moneymaker for the season was supposed to be The Other Side of Midnight. There had been pulpy science-fiction before, but it was almost inevitably a low-budget affair. Good special effects were only to be found in the rarified field of Thoughtful Science Fiction – 2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running. This… this was Flash Gordon with a budget. And it was fun.

You want to know why you left The Force Awakens disappointed? It’s because practically every movie and TV show made since, science-fiction and otherwise, has been Star Wars. Be it an attempt to reach Peak Special Effects or yet another rehash of The Hero’s Journey, they’ve been trying to catch that lightning in a bottle. Of course you don’t feel it’s original. It’s been cannibalized and recycled multiple times in the last four decades.

In 1977, there was nothing like Star Wars. In 2015, everything is Star Wars.

So you feel let down. Fine, that’s your right. I was too, a bit. But let’s not go tearing down quite so vociferously what other people – especially kids, kids of color, little girls – are enjoying and building future dreams upon. We had our trilogy. Let them have theirs.

Because I’m going to bet that, if you loosen up a little bit, to allow yourself to have just a little fun, they’re not going to mind you coming along for the ride, at all.

Playing Catch-Up

Well here we are at the end of the year. I have three more work-related obligations to get nailed down, and then I am an indolent layabout through the rest of the year (alright, more of an indolent layabout. Fine.). Trust me, if I could, I would knock out those three things bang bang bang, but – as you know – such things are dependent on time-space coordinates and other people. So here I am, in between bursts of housekeeping and letter writing, biding my time.

So let me waste some of yours.

I watched some movies, when I wasn’t working or madly re-writing my post on The Seven Samurai. Let’s talk about those.

The Last of Sheila (1973)

lastposterThere are Bucket List movies, and then there are… I guess you could call them Pail List movies? Movies you don’t have to see before you die, but you’ve heard some halfway decent things about them, and maybe you might want to look them up sometime? I honestly don’t remember this having much of a theatrical release, but I do remember it being reviewed in Creem magazine, of all places, which is probably what placed it on the… Pail List. Anyway, during one of Warner Archive’s sales, I picked it up.

James Coburn plays Clinton Green, a megalomaniacal Hollywood producer whose wife, the titular Sheila, was a victim of a hit-and-run homicide a year previous. Green invites several of his colleagues – all of whom were at the party leading up to the incident – on a week-long voyage on his yacht, during which they will play a devious scavenger-hunt game of his own devising. The yacht, incidentally, is named Sheila.

All of the participants are variously down on their luck in the star-maker machinery, and the cast is pretty amazing – Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, Joan Hackett, James Mason, Raquel Welch, and Ian McShane. Green is an exceptionally clever, but sadistic asshole, and his guests must play along to curry his favor, with the hope of some payout or work at the end, even if they are unsure as to what the ultimate purpose of his game may be… but that ultimate purpose is put into question when Green himself winds up dead.

The-Last-of-Sheila-Cast-Herbert-Ross-1973The Last of Sheila feels like an NBC Mystery Movie of the same vintage, without a continuing detective character. The dialogue is lot more sardonic and the twists and turns a bit more clever, thanks to a script by… Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins?!?! The plot becomes pretty byzantine, and I think at least one ball is dropped, but the script is so agile I can’t be sure unless I watch the movie again, and therein lies a problem.

For the first time in my fairly long relationship with Warner Archive, I got a lemon of a disc. My blu-ray player choked on the layer change (which occurs just at the point that Green’s murder is discovered) and I had to use the chapter stop to get to the scene afterwards. I don’t think I missed that much, as there are several flashbacks when the surviving party members make with the detectin’, but I can’t be sure.

Also, the spoiler in the box back copy wasn’t cool, guys. It wasn’t subtle at all.

The Green Pastures (1936)

green pasturesWarner Archive, though, remains one of my favorite boutique labels, because without them, I would never have the opportunity to see cultural oddities like this. The Green Pastures was based on a highly successful play by Marc Connelly (winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1930!), which was in turn based on a short story collection called “Ol’ Man Adam and His Chillun”. The framing story takes place in a black Sunday School in the Depression South, where a parson discusses the Bible with the children – the vast majority of the movie is a recreation of the high points of the Old Testament in the children’s minds.

Despite Warner’s disclaimer at the very beginning that The Green Pastures is “a product of its time”, there are a lot of folk who would turn their back on this movie almost immediately. The very first of the biblical scenes, taking place in a heaven presented as an eternal fish fry with endless ten-cent cigars is going to provoke a lot of eye-rolling and face-palming. But then Rex Ingram shows up as “De Lawd” and the proceedings suddenly become less childlike and more reverent.

The Green Pastures takes us from the creation of Man (appropriately, Adam is also played by Ingram), through Noah and the Great Flood, Moses and the Flight from Egypt, ending up at last with the Crucifixion – and the theology gets surprisingly complex. The simplistic, childlike approach will continue throughout, as Noah (a marvelous pre-Rochester turn by Eddie Anderson) is beleaguered by dice-throwing gangsters; Moses is given the power of “a trickster” by De Lawd to confront a Pharaoh surrounded by secret societies and lodges straight out of  the more cartoonish Laurel and Hardy movies. It’s the Porgy and Bess version of the Scriptures, and it is quite something to see.

But as I said, the theology gets complex. De Lawd is constantly disappointed and puzzled by his creation, especially after wiping nearly all of them out once, and they still insist on going bad; eventually De Lawd turns his back on Man and falls into depression, much to the dismay of the assembled angels. The biggest surprise (to me) is that Jesus does crop up at the very end, but not as the Son of God; instead, in God’s darkest hour of despair, he appears as a sign that Man is capable of Getting It Right, and De Lawd returns to his previous, beatific happiness.

the-green-pasturesSay what you will, this is one of the very, very few studio films with an all-black cast, and a lot of actors get to shine in something beside Stepin Fetchit comic relief roles. Rex Ingram, in particular, only got to shine a few times – here, and in the 1938 Huckleberry Finn as Jim, and The Thief of Bagdad as the sardonic genie. Apparently, the original plan was to have Al Jolson play the role in blackface, which is as wrong-headed and idiotic an idea as I can possibly imagine. This movie would have actually deserved all the opprobrium leveled against it for the wrong reasons (Paul Robeson was also offered the role, which would have been amazing, but he turned it down). Ingram is a winning blend of serenity, gravitas, and quiet power – one literally cannot conceive of the movie without his presence.

But the most telling thing in Warner Archive’s package is the trailer: nearly four minutes of Dick Powell and Marc Connelly telling us how great and important a movie it is. No blacks are ever shown except in a long shot., at a safe remove from the audience.

The Swimmer (1968)

the swimmerSo how best to follow that up than with the whitest movie I have ever seen?

Burt Lancaster plays Ned Merrill, a middle-aged man who decides that he will get home by swimming through a man-made river of swimming pools in a suburban enclave of wealth and privilege. Where exactly Merrill is coming from as he dives into the first pool is never revealed, another piece in the puzzle that is The Swimmer – we only know that the people are delighted to see him, and he has been away for a while.

As I said, this is a puzzle, and we are going to be given more pieces as the picture progresses. Merrill has been gone for at least a year, yes, and we find out that he was fired unceremoniously from his high-powered job at an “agency”. As he gets closer to his destination, he journeys from the land of the truly rich to the nouveau riche and finally into the land of the working schlubs (his last pool is the local municipal pool, with many rules and too much chlorine); resentment at his presence at scorn at his fallen status grows, even as his constant references to his happy marriage and loving children begin to take on the flavor of “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.” This leads to a gut-punch of a surprise – though not entirely unexpected – ending.

film-aspect-ratio-levelsThis is the Death of The American Dream as Twilight Zone episode, though Rod Serling would have put more of a keener edge on it, more of a stark moral. In the (as usual) exhaustive and informative extras on the Grindhouse Releasing blu-ray, we find that the production was a troubled one, and star Lancaster, who apparently felt this was one of his best roles, later said that the movie really needed a Fellini (or more likely, his pal Visconti) to actually pull it off well. This is a possibility – there is a level of grotesquerie that is lacking a sense of commitment in this story.

Director Frank Perry’s previous success was his first movie, the equally oddball love story David and Lisa. He would go on to more successful pictures like Diary of a Mad HousewifeRancho Deluxe and Mommie Dearest, but his doom was probably ensured when producer Sam Spiegel got Burt Lancaster for the lead (after being turned down by William Holden, Paul Newman and George C. Scott). Lancaster was eager for the role, learning to swim from Olympic coach Bob Horn (reportedly, Lancaster was afraid of water before this movie), and undergoing a strenuous physical regimen that slimmed him down while still producing twenty pounds of muscle. Critics may not have liked the movie, but they all praised the star’s physique.

He also started directing the movie behind Perry’s back.

The-Swimmer-1968-Movie-2The most famous instance of this is in Joan River’s debut scene, as a woman who encounters Merrill during the aforementioned nouveau riche Binswanger’s pool party (where no one is using the pool for swimming except Merrill). The scene lasts perhaps three minutes, and took seven days to film, Rivers attempting to follow both men’s direction. Eventually, Perry was fired from the director’s chair, and Lancaster prevailed upon his friend, Sydney Pollack, to re-shoot one sequence completely, and to add several more scenes.

The actual best scene – well, my favorite, anyway – involves Merrill hitching a ride in a limo to one exceptionally rich mansion, and finding to his surprise that the chauffeur is not “Steve”, and manages to have a complete conversation with the replacement without once asking his name. Bernie Hamilton is the replacement, only the second black we will see in the movie – the first being a bartender at a party – and his terse, restrained and resigned scene with Lancaster speaks volumes about how he feels about his place in this world. That one scene calls bullshit on the rest of the movie most effectively and efficiently.

the-swimmer-1968-790x587Still, the most effective condemnation of all this is in the extras – and I must admit that this may only be due to my jaundiced eye. There are many, many interviews, of course, but the ones I am concentrating on are with Joan Rivers and Janet Landgard, who plays Julie, a young girl who confesses to a childhood crush on Merrill that the man proceeds to totally misinterpret, giving us an early glimpse into his mental problems. Landgard had a continuing role(s) on The Donna Reed Show and this was her theatrical debut, an absolutely perfect avatar of a young blonde suburban girl, just entering into womanhood. She had since left Hollywood and was working at something awesome like managing scientific bases in the Antarctic (so numerous are the extras I don’t have time to scan back and verify that, but it was impressive enough to make me say, “Good on you!”). Rivers, of course, went on and became quite the enduring presence in Lala Land.

Both ladies’ interview segments are interspersed with clips from the movie. Both women have changed significantly in the intervening years, of course. The difference is that Landgard allowed herself to age, while Rivers, ever mindful of Hollywood, has had her face plasticized and botoxed to near-immobility – probably the best indictment of the lifestyle The Swimmer was trying, however unsuccessful ultimately, to condemn.

The Magic Flute (1975)

magic fluteOkay, one more before I put this to bed.

This is Ingmar Bergman’s TV adaptation of Mozart’s famous opera. I am going to freely admit that opera is one of those art forms I just do not get, but if there is one thing I have developed in these last few years of cinematic horizon-broadening, it is a deep love for Bergman, and the trust this engendered. This was a dream project for him, so I surrendered myself to Bergman’s dream, and did not regret it one bit.

The Magic Flute isn’t pure opera, it’s a form of it called Songspiele, which incorporates spoken dialogue. Bergman attempted to duplicate the theatrical experience, right down to having a facsimile of the original 1791 theater built in a studio of the Swedish Film Institute. The overture is illustrated with the expectant faces of the audience.

My lack of operatic knowledge worked soundly in my favor. I went into this knowing nothing about the opera, so every plot twist, every character beat and nuance was completely new to me. Tamino, a handsome prince lost in a strange land, if tasked by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter,  Pamina, from the evil sorcerer, Sarastro. He will be assisted by the fowler, Papageno, who wants nothing more than a girlfriend. The Queen gives Tamino the Magic Flute of the title, and Papageno a set of magic bells.

Film_71w_MagicFlute_originalThe major twist (spoilers for an 18th century opera, dude) is that Sarastro is actually Pamina’s father, and he is no sorcerer, but a respected holy man hoping to not only free Pamina from the evil influence of her mother, but also deliver all mankind from evil. Tamino, he feels, will prove to the active agent of this change, but only if he can survive the ordeals suffered by every member of Sarastro’s priesthood, and an ultimate test that he will face along with Pamina and the power of the Flute.

Bergman’s staging is magical – there are occasional glimpses of backstage activities, and the sets fluidly expand to impossible vistas as the story progresses, moving back and forth between the physical confines of an actual theater and the larger expanses of the imagination. The Magic Flute also gives me something I had not been aware I craved in the few operas I have attended: intimacy, in the form of canny close-ups and camera moves.

The Magic Flute has some notoriously difficult passages; Mozart wrote these for singers he knew and their particular strengths. The singers here – some of the best Sweden had to offer – tackle the music with relish, and as the first TV movie recorded in stereo sound, the presentation is quite luscious.

Here’s an example of the playful staging, with Papageno’s entrance and first song:

That’s a high point to leave you on, here. Hopefully, back soon with more blathering, because I’ve certainly watched more movies.

 

After the Rubble, Some More Rubble

Special thanks to all of you who followed my meandering blog after the Criterion Blogathon. Hi, how have you been?

I’ve been busy.

For all you new folks, here’s the story on yours truly: like a good modern American, I am working three part-time jobs at once, and holding down a writing contract (which ended last month, but due to the vicissitudes of the project, I am still writing on it, because that is how I roll). One of those jobs is acting; therefore, December is a busy month for me. Business parties, and all that.

Usually around Thanksgiving I post a ha-ha, here we go again, see you in January post, but thaaaaat didn’t happen, sorry. Stress about the money from that contract evaporating this month was a major culprit, but work ramping up for the holidays was another.

In the coming week, I will 1) videotape a holiday concert for my day job; 2) edit it and another concert into two stories for our Holiday Magazine show; 3) run audio for a School Board meeting remote broadcast using equipment so aged and failing that I refer to it as “cosplaying Apollo 13“; 4) act in four shows, three of which are for private parties.

All of this is leading up to a non-optional two week vacation without pay at the end of the month (a major reason all work is so hectic this time of year). I’ve run the numbers, and I think I’m okay, but I admit to a good degree of twitchiness and foreboding.

Because I am a good modern American.

Movie talk will resume soon. Have some safe, happy holidays, people. We could all use some.

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