L’avventura

October 30, 2013

Michelangelo Antonioni’s film of 1960:  one critic said of it that no film has subverted expectations and conventions so elegantly as this one. I guess that’s why it received boos at its first showing in Cannes, although it was later awarded a jury prize.  I first saw it in college – I loved the images – but I wasn’t sure I understood what it was all about.  Is it about anything?  Of course, there’s Monica Vitti!!

In short, some rich parasites who lack social grace take a boat trip to a Mediterranean volcanic island.  One of their party, Anna, goes missing:  nobody seems overly concerned.  They do the right thing and get the authorities, but, well, maybe she was just bored, and ran off somehow.  The story centers on Sandro, Anna’s boyfriend, and Claudia, her best friend along for the ride.  They have an affair.  Seems pretty weird, doesn’t it?  After all, Sandro and Anna were to be … married, weren’t they?

Before the boat trip, Sandro goes to get Anna.  She takes him upstairs to make love.  “Your friend is waiting,” he says.  “Let her wait!”  That’s Claudia through the window.  The characters, and the audience, will do a lot of waiting in this film.

Monica Vitti’s presence dominates the film.  She became a superstar after its release.  Here, she waits, while her friends make love upstairs.

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Anna is a mercurial type.  She ends a pleasant dip in the sea by the boat when she claims to have seen a shark.  Is there something between these two ladies?

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They go ashore on a dramatic little island.  Sandro and Anna argue. The stupid boat passengers pick among the rocks.

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Time to leave, and no Anna.  They all go searching.  The scenery is awe-inspiring.

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Still, guys like this are barely affected by the beauty around them.  He just goes on making fun of his scatter-brained wife and everything else in the world.  Not an endearing portrait of the denizens of la dolce vita. As a critic remarked, in Fellini’s film they at least seem to be having fun:  these people are just bored by everything.

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Claudia and Sandro are of this group, but outsiders in a way.  We learn that he was an aspiring architect at one point, with ideas, and that as a boy he wanted to be a diplomat or a romantic, starving genius.  Now, he’s just rich, with houses in Milan and Rome.  Claudia remarks at one point that she had a “sensible” childhood, that is “without any money.”  Sandro found his way into this circle of decayed noblemen and parasites through business, but we have no clue about Claudia.  I guess being so beautiful might open a few doors, especially in a totally sexist society.

Claudia is genuinely distraught over Anna’s disappearance while Sandro seems to take it all very calmly.  Moreover, he seems uncomfortably interested in Claudia…  And she is not comfortable with her own attraction to him…

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An encounter on the boat before they set off for the mainland to deal with the police and continue the search for Anna: Claudia doing her hair…

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…Sandro coming aboard for his suitcase…

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He makes his move…impulsive…”Yes, absurd…so what?”  He has all the existentialist crap for excuses to her objections that it is just not right, not now…

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He follows her onto a train to try and convince her to go away with him.  She overhears a young provincial coming on like gangbusters to a pretty country girl, and she laughs at the crudeness of his attempts at seduction.  She begs Sandro to leave her be, and he does.  But they get together not long afterwards, continuing their desultory search for Anna.

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Not much to value between men and women.  Here, one of the boat passengers, now in a palace in Sicily, flirts with a young prince to make her husband jealous, a futile endeavor.  The guy’s artwork, simply a device to get women, is utter junk.

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Claudia is rather disgusted by the whole business…

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We may wonder why a sensible and beautiful woman like Claudia hangs out with these creeps, but it’s 1960, and what was her upbringing..?  She is a strong female character, but in a world hostile to women.  In the most powerful, terrifying in a way, scenes of the film, she waits for Sandro while he makes inquiries in a hotel.  Suddenly, she realizes that as a woman unescorted by a male, she is open game for anything with pants.  They eye her like a whore strutting her stuff in a bordello.

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Sandro has his own emotional issues.  He wants to view a church interior, but the town is not set up for tourists.  A local man informs him that “they got a few French here, but they just wanted to go to the beach,” and the locals told them they were not welcome.  Presumably, they were not properly dressed.  Nobody cares about architecture…

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Except for one young man doing a sketch in the piazza…  Hmm…not bad.

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Not bad at all.  Too bad it got ink knocked all over it…  The young man confronts Sandro, but a friend intervenes.  Such is the generosity and spiritual fullness of Sandro’s inner life.

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The school lets out and a stream of young boys in black… some see it as the equivalent of the ink on the paper.  Is that what ruined Sandro’s psychology?  Or is that a better way, now ignored?

Who knows?  Who cares?  Should we care..?  Well, the film is stunning to watch even if we don’t like the people much.

Poor Claudia.  She’s tired, so she doesn’t go down to enjoy an evening of schmoozing with the glitterati at the hotel they pitch up in, but Sandro goes, and stays late.  Claudia goes in search of him through the now-empty rooms, littered with party junk.  He is engaged with a young woman (aspiring actress?  prostitute?  both?) on a couch.  Claudia is shocked and disgusted.  Should she be surprised?

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She runs outside, and Sandro follows.  He sits on a bench and weeps. The film ends with a depressing chord, and Claudia taking his hair in her hand in a gesture of comfort.  This is what she is stuck with, I guess. Pretty sad for all of them.

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Fritz Goes West

October 19, 2013

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1940, and in color, Fritz Lang takes on The Western, in The Return of Frank James.  What do you get when the master of M and Metropolis goes west?  A pretty good show, with Henry Fonda being particularly fine.

Lang plays it straight with the genre – how could he do otherwise then?  But at times, he seems to be slipping in some playful self-referential material.  Frank James is the brother of Jesse James, the famous outlaw gunned down by the Ford brothers, supposedly in a cowardly manner in return for their pardons.  When Frank hears they are off the hook for the killing, he vows to get them.

Frank concocts a bit of theater to make it easier to spring a trap on the Fords.  He checks into a fancy hotel and spreads the story by way of his young sidekick that Frank James was actually shot dead in a gunfight in Mexico.  Nobody knows their faces, so the ruse is quite successful.  It attracts the interest of a young, ambitious female reporter, Eleanor, played by Gene Tierney in her first starring role, who is completely taken by the tale.  In the shot below, Clem acts out his “eye witness” account of Frank’s “heroic” death for the benefit of Eleanor and Frank.  He seems to be spoofing the western genre itself as he does so.

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Seems that the Fords are making hay out of their killing of Jesse, reenacting it in another bit of theater.  Frank goes in to take a look at the show, Earlier in the film, there is a bit of dialog in which Frank relates another theatrical experience of his, seeing a great performance by an actor named Booth.   Frank sits in a box  above the stage, but he doesn’t kill anyone at the show, unlike John Wilkes.  When Ford recognizes him from the stage, and hurls a lamp at him, Frank, like John Wilkes Booth, leaps from his box onto the stage, but he doesn’t break his arm…

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Eventually, Frank turns himself in to prevent his farmhand “darky,” innocent of any crime, from being hanged for taking part in one of Frank’s robberies.  The subsequent trial is filled with Civil War politics that results in Frank’s acquittal.  I wonder what Fritz made of it all.

Say, what was the name of that theater, Mrs. Lincoln..?


Sacrifice of the Sun

September 9, 2013

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From the first part of Fritz Lang’s The Spiders (1919).  It’s an Indiana Jones kind of tale.

I find it incredible that I can watch moving figures captured almost 100 years ago.


Dandy on the Bounty

June 18, 2013

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Mutiny on the Bounty was released in 1962:  one of those monumental Hollywood debacles derailed by star-power, as with Heaven’s Gate, Ishtar, and Cleopatra.  In this case, the failure was due to vast cost overruns caused by Marlon Brando’s mutiny on the set, and the coast of location shooting in the South Seas.  Still, who cares if the film made money?  It’s worth seeing for the spectacular set pieces and Brando’s remarkable and unusual performance.

There was a real mutiny on a ship called Bounty, and a film treatment from the 30s with Laughton and Gable, and the makers of this film wanted to set the record straight.  Instead of a simple good guy vs. evil guy plot, they wanted to show Captain Bly as he was, good and bad together.  Some thought that would make for a poor story that wouldn’t sell, and anyway, Marlon Brando, the reigning supernova of cinema acting during the 1950s, hijacked the picture, effectively sacking a director and taking over himself, subjecting the script to endless rewrites, sometimes the night before shooting.

For those who are interested, there are plenty of insider memoir narrations to read, filled with Brando’s pouting, sulking, arrogance, narcissism, arbitrariness, and the reactions of the infuriated cast who had to deal with him.  It wasn’t pretty.  In the end, Bligh comes off as a man tormented by his lowly origins, constantly suffering slights, real and imagined, of his ‘betters’, driven to cruelty by insecurity and a lack of imagination, and sexually uptight to boot.

Brando’s portrayal of Fletcher Christian, Mr. Christian, is remarkable, surprising, and a bit odd.  We must assume that it was wholly a characterization of  his own:  no one else takes credit for it.  It is willful, and a bit perverse, but, in the end, brilliant.  As Stanley Crouch observed in this DVD review:

…Brando’s Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), a character he interprets as a high-toned British fop who is more than mildly reluctant to face the sadistic inclinations of Trevor Howard’s finely drawn Capt. Bligh—a leader who mistakes sadism as a substitute for firm but inspirational command. Brando has a superb understanding of how much it takes for a witty, charming, and insubstantial man to stand up against the very order that guarantees his position in the world.

Indeed, our first view of Fletcher is of him climbing out of an ornate carriage, in the company of two elegant women.  He walks on board in a bright red cloak, and we see him only from the back, surrounded by the bustle of the grungy crew at work preparing to sail.
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He introduces himself to the captain; all manners, grace, smiles, and suave superiority.  He glances around contemptuously at the miserable excuse for the ship he is to sail on, and uses his verbal facility to make clear to Bligh that though he is the captain, and he, Christian, will obey him, their relative worth as men is clearly the reverse of that hierarchy.
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And there is that voice!  He speaks in what sounds at first like a parody of an upper-class-twit of the late 18th century.  Slightly nasal, a whiff of effeminacy.  That, in those days, was attractive to women of court:  it went with the clothes.  He is always decked out in pure white linen, and while in his cabin, he sits propped up by fluffy pillows.  He is a ladies man and a dandy.

Crouch’s remarks point to the political dilemma of Mr. Christian’s position:  he will not rock the boat if he can avoid it, despite his contempt for the vulgarian Bligh, a man who has no sense of how a gentleman should lead the common sort.  But he is a rebel in his soul, as are all the great dandies.  I wonder if Brando was familiar with Beau Brummel, and the critical writings about dandyism by Balzac and others:  if not, he instinctively grasped their essence.  Ultimately, Christian rebels against Bligh because he cannot stomach being commanded by such a brute:  it’s just too vulgar.

In the end, he tries to convince the men to return to England, face court-martial, and tell their story.  He’s convinced that they will be vindicated, but the men are not:  They burn the ship, and Christian dies of burns trying to put it out.  You have to wonder if he felt his exile on Pitcairn Island would be an insupportable burden because he would be cut off from society, forever branded as a criminal, or if he just could not exist without an audience for his preening and witty repartee.

Some views:

Christian the gentleman, refuses to adjudicate between the word of a gardener and a seaman.  What’s the point?
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Fabulous wide-screen shots of the Tahitians welcoming the Bounty, a complete replica of a ship of that day.
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Captain Bligh is compelled to dance with the island princess to avoid offending the local chief.  He is humiliated at having his crew watch him attempt the feat.  Anglo Saxon commanders can’t dance.
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Bligh won’t go ashore, and refers to the local women as sluts.  But he orders Christian to do his duty and make love to the chief’s daughter.  Brando makes the scene into a cruel and funny one:  mocking the captain’s sexual anxiety, mocking patriotism, mocking duty, and feigning resignation at what he must do.
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Fletcher in love, or at least, satisfying his lust, as commanded by the Captian.  (The chief will be offended if the princess is spurned.)
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The last straw with Bligh comes when he rations the water to feed the plants they are ferrying to Jamaica, where it is hoped they will provide a reliable food supply for the slaves toiling in the sugar plantations.
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Bligh kicks the cup from Christians hand, and Christian strikes him, saying, “You’ll not put your foot on me again, you bastard!”

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They say their goodbyes:  Bligh is set adrift in a boat with some supplies and loyal crew.  The film soft pedals the fact that Bligh executed a stunning feat of seamanship, piloting the boat over thousands of miles and losing only one man.  He returned to England quickly to report the mutiny.
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Almost immediately, he starts to mull on what he has done.  Unlike the common sailors, he had a lot to lose, and now it’s gone.

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He’s left with only common sailors and one officer to command, but he looks the part of captain.
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The final scene, with Christian dying of his burns is tremendous.  We see the man, no longer able to face the world with the stance of a dandy, shocked at being told that he is dying.  There is nothing left.  He tries to sum up, but death cuts him off.
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Baby Face

June 12, 2013

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1933. Two versions:  before and after the cut for release.  Needless to say, watch the first one.

Barbara Stanwyck plays a working class urchin, Lily, grown up into a speakeasy prostitute, manged by her brutal dad.  He gets blown sky-high by his malfunctioning still, and after the funeral, Lily goes to see Cragg, one of the customers, but the only man who takes her seriously.  He’s a shoemaker who gets high on Nietzsche, and he fills her head with the idea of The Will to Power.  Her lack of drive disgusts him so he gives her  advice:  “Use men to get the things you want!”

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Lily takes the advice and makes it to New York, sleeping with men all the way to get what she needs and wants.  She does quite well for herself.  Near the peak, she gets a set of books from Cragg, back in Erie, NY.  One of them gets her attention.

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She takes her philosophy seriously, very seriously.  And she puts it into practice too!

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The high point of the film comes when Lily is interrupted with her latest sugar daddy, the president of the bank where she was working.  Her former lover, the vice president, and the prospective son-in-law of the president, can’t stand not having Lily anymore after she jilts him for the big guy.  He knows he’s been replaced, but he doesn’t know by whom.  Look at that dress, one of many outrageous getups she wears!

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He tells her to sit down, “I just like to look at you.”  And more, I bet.

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He runs in, throws Lily aside, barges in, sees the old man…

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…and plugs him.

Left behind in the main room, Lily calmly waits to see the outcome.  She hears the shots, then hears one final shot…

She goes to investigate.  She finds one man…but where’s the shooter?  The following sequence goes on for what seems like quite a while.  It’s silent, and very still.  She moves slowly through the rooms, looking, contemplating…

Pretty nice outfit for police work…but she hasn’t found him yet.  She moves on.

  

There he is…

Still silent, no words…nothing.  It’s eerie, and very powerful.

Slowly she opens the door wider to get a better look, while we just see her bare back, obscuring the view.  The sound gets louder here, as though the bathroom window is open and letting in traffic noise, but I don’t know if that’s intentional, or just a quirk of the old film material.

She shuts the door on the body…

…and we get a very, very long shot of her head, in profile, barely moving.

Finally, she calmly picks up the phone.  “There’s been an accident.  You’d better call the police.”


Lilith Eternal

March 5, 2013


First there was the novel, Nightmare Alley, now available in a new printing from the NYRB.  Then the film, with Helen Walker playing Lilith Ritter, the female psychiatrist with ice water in her veins.  She sucks the life out of Stanton Carlisle, played by Tyrone Power, and throws away his deflated husk of a body.  He descends back into the muck from which he came and finishes as a geek, biting the heads off chickens for a living. It’s a faithful adaptation of the book.
   
Then there was Lilith, the uptight dominatrix of the TV sitcom Cheers, played by Bebe Neuwirth.  She has to be channelling Helen Walker!
Neuwirth as Lilith
After that, came the comic book adaptation of Nightmare Alley by Spain Rodriguez, published by Fantagraphics.

Lilith has Bebe’s dark hair…


… and is up-front about her needs…  The toe nail painting is a nice noir reference to Scarlett Street, by Fritz Lang.

And finally, we have the nifty neo-noir, Side Effects, in which Catherine Zeta-Jones , as Victoria Seibert, is definitely channelling all of the above.


Is the war over?

January 20, 2013

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Yves Montand stars in the Alain Resnais film, La guerre est finie, from 1966.  It takes place a year or two before that, and is a portrait of a professional revolutionary who is getting worn out by it all.  Montand is Carlos, or Domingo, or any one of a bunch of different alias, a dedicated communist in the anti-Franco resistance.  He’s been hiding his own Spanish identity for so long, moving back and forth across the border with Spain, that he says he sometimes he forgets himself that he is a Spaniard.

Spain was a fascist state in those days – Franco didn’t die for another ten years or so.  People resisting his rule are killed, imprisoned, and harassed. Meanwhile, millions of Europeans and Americans see Spain as the perfect summer vacation spot.  Carlos is wondering if times have changed so much that the old strategies need an update.

Unfortunately, being a member of a communist underground means he has to discuss, theorize, and justify everything in terms of the approved catechism of The Party.  In the image above, he is learning that his controlling committee no longer trusts his judgement: how could he doubt that organizing, yet again, for a general strike is the correct strategy?  He has been in Madrid too long, too close to the day to day struggles.  He has lost site of the bigger picture, the true state of ‘historical conditions.’  He needs a rest for six months, or longer.  Time to reacquaint himself with the timeless truths of Lenin and The Party.  Of course, when the man picked to replace him in Madrid has a heart attack, Carlos is suddenly suitable for work ‘on the ground’ and is told to return immediately.

While all this is going on, Carlos meets Nadine, a young student who with quick thinking, gets him out of a fix with the authorities.  She’s in the anti-Franco movement too, and she involves him in a meeting with her committee.  They are all very young, and they are scornful of the fuddy-duddy Marxists in Carlos’ group who continually use the same old tactics.  He has to admit, they have a point – exactly his criticisms.  But what do they plan to do?  Detonate plastic explosives in a terrorist action to disrupt tourism in Spain.  Carlos walks out in disgust.

What’s a thinking man to do?  He follows orders, and returns to Spain, but Nadine finds out at the last minute that he will be trapped.  The committee taps Carlos’ lover to rush to Spain to try to head him off and warn him.  The film ends without us knowing if she succeeds.  Seems either way, the war is over for him.

Resnais uses his signature editing techniques to disrupt the viewers normal sense of narrative.  It effectively raises the level of suspense while allowing us to follow Carlos’ plight with intense interest.


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