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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Let us count the dead men: Johnny Guitar

October 26, 2013


Johnny Guitar (1954), Nicholas Ray.  Joan Crawford… Man, what else can I say?  This western is unlike any other I know.  Martin Scorsese calls it an opera, and he’s right.  That is the only way to make sense of it – the stagey-ness, the set-pieces, the slow paced emotional confrontations, the melodrama of killing, and the claustrophobic sense that there is no real world outside of what’s going on in the frame right in front of us.  Most of the action takes place in one location in town – Three Unities anyone?

You can read many analyses of this film’s political ‘symbolism’ of lynch mobs representing the contemporary HUAC activities. Or the sexual role reversal – all the men are weaklings:  the women do the heavy lifting.  Or the lesbian barely-subtext:  Vienna (Joan Crawford) as a powerful dominatrix, forcing men to cower, and engaging the adolescent love-hate of Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge).  Vienna wears tight pants, leather, men’s brightly colored shirts and scarves with jeans, and, at one point, confronts the town’s menfolk bent on hanging her while playing a piano wearing a wedding gown – Emma, repressed harpie wears only black and grey.  Read about that elsewhere – I just want to count the men who die for this masculine femme fatale.

There’s Turkey, the young boy-outlaw who has a sort of crush on Vienna.  He gets caught by a the posse of men in black, and is terrorized into implicating Vienna in a bank robbery he was part of.  That’s cause to hang ’em both!  The men promise him if he just talks, tells the truth, he won’t hang.  He lies, and says Vienna was in on the heist,  They take them both out to hang, but only Turkey dies, screaming protests at his betrayal.  Ah, just a kid.  What does he know?  Johnny Guitar is in hiding and manages to cut the noose rope that’s around Vienna’s pretty neck:  he couldn’t save them both, could he?  It’s actually a pretty brutal portrayal of mob murder.

Then there’s Old Tom (John Carradine).  When Vienna pays off her staff and tells them to scram before the posse comes for them too, he hides and stays.  When he witnesses the mob trying to drag Vienna off to be lynched, he shoots and is shot.  Dying in her arms, Vienna asks him, “Why, why Tom – why didn’t you go like I told you?”  The men in black crowd around – “Look, everyone is looking at me now.  It’s the first time I ever felt important.”  Vienna has that effect on men.

Then there’s the Dancing Kid and his gang, of whom Turkey was one.  Bart tries to make a deal with Emma to turn in the gang, and he kills one of mates when the guy won’t go along with the plan.  After he plants a knife in the man’s back he says, “Some guys just won’t listen.”  Johnny Guitar, an ex-gunman, kills Bart, the only man he kills in the film.  He really is done with shooting – prefers to sing and play.  That leaves The Dancing Kid, leader of the gang, and Vienna’s main squeeze before Johnny blew into town.  Emma shoots him as he rushes to protect Vienna from Emma in the climactic scene.  He dies, a bullet in his forehead, his arms raised, seeking transcendence as he calls out Vienna’s name.

And then there’s Emma herself, shot by Vienna, but she is a woman, albeit one of confused sexual identity.

Vienna’s scheme is to hold onto her property until the railroad comes through, and then sell out for piles of cash.  She’s in good with the railroad management.  Her saloon is burned down, but she still owns the land, so I guess she and Johnny will have a comfortable retirement.


Wuthering Heights

October 20, 2013

Revisiting my high school days, I watched Wuthering Heights (1939) and read Emily Brontë’s novel again – better than I remembered!  Well, not entirely:  This bit was no less fantastic then than now.

How she does stare! It’s odd what a savage feeling I have to anything that seems afraid of me! Had I been born where laws are less strict and tastes less dainty, I should treat myself to a slow vivisection of those two, as an evening’s amusement.’

What is this book?!  It is unlike any other I know, and I have read a lot of 19th century gothic romances.  Wuthering Heights trades in some features of the gothic – the supernatural, the barren and forbidding setting, weird, demonic characters – but compared to it, stories such as Melmoth the Wanderer and the like are child’s play.  The horror and the fright in Wuthering Heights is all born out of psychology, twisted and implacable.  More likely, the book has provided the template for a host of latter-day gothic horror stories set in windy inhospitable places filled with creepy dangerous people, and houses filled with sadistic perversity.

There is so much to this novel:  the role of women of course; the place of servants; sexual perversity bordering on necrophilia; and psychopathology.  For the surrealists, it was a touchstone of l’amour fou, although the film adaptation by the master, Luis Bunuel, The Abyss of Passion (not to be confused with the current telenovella of the same name!) misses the mark widely.

The story involves two households and two families on the moors of northern England.  Local color is given by the deep Yorkshire dialect of Joseph, the insufferably pious hypocrite and loyal house servant.  There are no towns nearby – the action is all local, except when the characters charge out of the novel’s frame to elope, or emigrate to America to gain a fortune, and reports of their doings filter back by letter or word of mouth.  The family trees get tangled, and it’s a good idea to have a clear one before you when you read the story since there is Catherine Earnshaw, and Cathy Linton, and Healthcliff (no other name, as in Cher, or Sting) and Mr. Heathcliff, his despised son, and so forth.  Heathcliff wreaks havoc on them all.

The demonic Heathcliff is adopted informally to the family by Mr. Earnshaw who finds him homeless on the streets of Liverpool during a business trip.  His act of generosity is the undoing of his descendants and community:  is there a moral here?  Heathcliff and Cathy develop an intense bond as children – is this unhealthy? – and Cathy’s brother is jealous of his prerogatives as the heir to the manor.  When kindly Mr. Earnshaw dies, Heathcliff is banished to the stables.

The book is filled with servants, telling as it does the tale of local country gentry.  In fact, the main characters are surrounded by people, but most of them are never seen.  Stableboys, field hands, servant girls, all toiling to produce the wealth that sustains the Earnshaws and the Lintons.  Heathcliff runs away to escape the humiliation heaped upon him as one without a lineage or property, and he returns rich:  where did he get his money?  Nobody knows.  He seeks vengeance on the landed proprietors that cast him out.  No wonder this book was popular with Marxists literary critics!

In the end, Heathcliff appears to be successful in his quest:  He lost Cathy to an early death, but he is assured of being  buried next to her, an essential arrangement for him.  In fact, he can barely restrain himself from embracing her corpse that he has ordered exhumed in one of the more bizarre episodes of the book.  He has driven Cathy’s brother to ruin, pushed her husband into an early grave, financially and emotionally emasculated his former tormentor, the son of his benefactor, and is on the way to thoroughly degrading the  son of Cathy’s brother, who should be the heir to the Heights, but doesn’t even realize he’s being cheated of his birthright.  Oh, and Heathcliff has a son, whom he despises, born of Cathy’s sister, who was idiotically attracted to his dark, handsome prospect, and was quick to realize she had practically married Satan.  She, at least, had the good sense to flee.

But Heathcliff is undone by love.  His own obsessive love for the dead Cathy haunts him to distraction.  And the genuine love and affection that springs up between Cathy and Hareton, despite his best efforts to turn them against one another, irritates him beyond endurance.  Cathy has inherited the stubbornness and defiance of her mother, and turns it, with love, against Heathcliff.  He just dies…

And then there is Nellie, the servant who narrates most of the book.  She is often in the position of doing something that she doesn’t think is quite right, and that she would not do for her own family, but which her subservient position compels her to do.  And then, sometimes she just concludes that it’s not worth the effort to try and oppose the wishes of her masters:  after all, they are the masters, and she just a servant, even though she knows she is right and they are wrong.  I wonder if she is, after all, the voice of Emily in the book.

Man, what an imagination that woman had!

The 1939 adaptation with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon is very fine in its Hollywood-romantic way, although it deals only with the first generation of pain in Wuthering Heights, ending with the death of Catherine Earnshaw.  Olivier is wonderful in embodying the dark attraction of the Heathcliff as well as his frenzied, obsessional love.  And his supercilious blank stares when he is playing cat and mouse with his gentry opponents is brilliant.


Behold the Lamb

October 15, 2013

Cloisters Apocalypse

Altered States: Ken Russell

 


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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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 psychiatrist 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.
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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.


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