Friday, May 30, 2008

Easy Rider (1969)

At a certain point in many American lives, the little sermon of George Hanson, played by a young Jack Nicholson, crystallizes within the mind. An ACLU lawyer, Hanson seems to merely feign ignorance when he says, "This used to be a hell of a good country. I can't understand what's gone wrong with it." Hanson deliberately explains to the obtuse and confused Billy (Dennis Hopper), as if in a tutorial, that everyday Americans are genuinely afraid of the freaks amidst the population because those freaks, no matter how ill-tempered and rough, are actually enjoying liberty, that quintessential American birthright supposedly as inherent in this country's ideals as the value of oxygen to a human being. The drones who comprise ordinary Americans may plead that they want freedom, but, Hanson warns with philosophical gravity, "...it's real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace." Hanson's partly hazy, partly incisive reading of the ills of society plays out a little like a civics course, possibly a professorial lecture. His ultimate point: it's nearly impossible to be free in the truest sense of the word when you are cogs in a vast economic machine.

The screenplay of Easy Rider may feature the names Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda (who plays Hopper's friend, Wyatt) above the more likely real heavy-lifter among the writing unit, Terry Southern. Fonda and Hopper doubtless had the original conception for Easy Rider but Southern described their screenwriting contributions as "dumb-bell dialogue" almost entirely improvised by the actors themselves, leaving Southern to write the overwhelming bulk of the final shooting script. Southern was a man of complexities, a kind of paradoxical creature whose nearly bipolar sense of being stirs almost immediate interest. He was an avid student of philosophy and an enormous admirer of Faulkner while also being a deeply cynical hipster and troublemaker, goofing off and having fun with the founders of the Paris Review in the Parisian streets.

Easy Rider could possibly be the uttermost '60s American film. Partly an attack on American imperialism during the Vietnam War, it was largely unloved among conservatives. Despite its sleeve-wearing liberalism, however, a more shadowy, recondite sense of traditionalism lurks in the background of this film's troubled landscape. The motorcycle-trekking duo may be in search of America, as the tagline of the film says, but their understanding is feeble despite what would appear to be their best, most open-minded intentions. Naturally, they run up against trouble in the form of Southerners who are hostile toward their ways. Yet Billy and Wyatt, for all of their physical predicaments, are not merely victims of redneck intolerance--a perfectly suitable but oddly altogether unsatisfying reading of the film--but also of their own apparent "capitalist" avarice, too. Their journey's main reason for existing is its financial insurance through a cocaine deal. Both subtle and unmistakable, while the actual cocaine deal ensues, Steppenwolf's "God Damn the Pusher Man" musically thumps the duo and implicates them--and us--in their tragic misadventure.

An iconic representation of the counterculture, Easy Rider is also a milestone in the history of the American independent cinema. Made on what would seem to be a true shoestring budget, this simple distillation of the doomed rebels of one era almost stings the viewer today with its intelligently sober-eyed, dismayed and dismally realized denouement. Fonda reportedly approached Bob Dylan for permission to use his song "It's All Right Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)" but when Dylan asked for details about the film, and especially its conclusion, he refused. When Fonda protested, Dylan is said to have remarked, "You have to give them [the counterculture] hope. Hope for a future." Fonda said coldly, "They don't have one." So the story goes. As a result, Dylan's song is in the film but it's performed by Roger McGuinn.

The direction by Hopper is wily and resourceful, and the performances are either completely sound or in the outstanding case of Nicholson, truly riveting. The psychedelic narrative is both deceptively dense and fantastically nimble. The film's rock 'n' roll pacing gives this road trip of a movie its roaring engine. Easy Rider is both annular and linear: visuals repeat themselves, casually reappear, seem to mean little at one moment and then gradually gain in import; meanwhile, the story progression never ceases as one memorable scene quickly follows another. Hopper immediately gains our attention with sharp actions based in deeply meaningful imagery. The shot of the watch being thrown into the ground is as captivating as it has ever been, nearly four whole decades later.

The bikers find themselves in an episodic confrontation with the inner workings of society and its basic microcosms. Early in the film, they are guests for a rancher married to a Mexican woman with a substantial number of offspring. The rancher represents the gentlemanly Christian, saying grace before the meal with the guests, and behaving as kindly as possible despite being occasionally annoyed by the loudness of the bikes and the less-than-fully-tactful ways of the motley pair. Wyatt is only able to mutter, "You do your own thing in your own time." Wyatt and Billy, despite superficially fitting in with a commune of free-love hippies, fall terribly short of the ideal. In the end, they too are themselves motivated by entrepreneurial and individualistically-minded agendas and less the victims of capitalism than its beneficiaries and unwitting banner-carriers.

Easy Rider's somewhat fatalistic odyssey finds both humor and pathos in the Hanson character. Nicholson makes him fully three-dimensional whereas there are times where Hopper's bombastic, skittish and fidgety Billy and Fonda's calm, introspective and more trusting Wyatt seem excessively defined against one another. The cinematography by the great Laszlo Kovacs, who left us last year, is a kind of naturalistically rich, spontaneously-minded lighting strategy that allows the characters to somehow absorb the lonely road and integrate it into their distinct personalities. (Wyatt, "Captain America," seems more positively sure of himself even when on his bike while the anxious Billy seems to desire approval derived from camaraderie.)

The film's final judgment is a sagely dispiriting one, as the frolicking drug dealers meet their wretched fate with a kind of resigned acceptance. The submissive conclusion plays out like an extended, serene epiphany. Amidst all the turmoil and vituperation, against the backdrop of the epoch of the movement, the film's "Rosebud" moment occurs with the doped-up Wyatt sensing the disgusting truth. In lusting after the big score, and their shallow, materialistically-based dreams of grandeur, they "blew it."

Friday, May 23, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

For over twenty years now, one of the most gracefully interwoven and important themes of Steven Spielberg's films has been the almost Resnaisian exploration of the qualities and deficiencies of familial memory to be found in his work. Spielberg, forever obsessed with family and loved ones, and most especially father figures and the lack thereof, pushes this theme to, naturally, its most "Spielbergian" degrees, as the characters in Spielberg films either take solace in their memory of family or are haunted by said memories. Or, at least in a couple of devastating cases, wherein the Spielbergian "lost boy"--growing up incredibly fast amidst worldwide chaos and losing his innocence--has, because of massively intrusive and bewildering outside forces, forgotten those memories, they are determined to somehow return to them.

This would blossom twenty-one years ago, but it can be found in early Spielberg works such as The Sugarland Express, which finds a father and mother determined to take their son back from the state of Texas, obviously motivated in the extreme by their collective memory of creating their child and at least abstractly loving him. In E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Elliot and his mother's memory of the absent father/husband figure leads to discordant disharmony between them. Between these two films, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, this theme, still finding expression in disparate ways, is almost turned on its head in twisted fashion, as the protagonist, Ray, loses all grasp of his family in pursuit of a memory, quixotically breaking his own family unit down in his self-centered fixation.

Yet the theme is most eloquently introduced in the Spielberg canon, becoming a quintessential piece of his cinematic tapestry, in Empire of the Sun, finding a special kind of import as the real-life engine of what at the time was seen by its director as the antithesis of his material. Spielberg's claim that Empire was breaking from his earlier work because rather than cherishing childhood innocence, it was a methodical dismantling of it is of course only half-true. The film's tone is mournful, and is most certainly a poignant love letter to childhood, arguably Spielberg's greatest. Even if it concludes with the boy Jamie becoming the man Jim--most pointedly symbolized by the swapping of the coffin at the very beginning of the film floating in the Shanghai harbor being replaced by Jim's suitcase representing his childhood at the very conclusion--it's through a child's eyes that Spielberg shapes the film. The film is based on a memoir, written by a man working with what Spielberg instinctively recognized as the factually faulty but nevertheless wonderfully earnest recollection of a child. So the whole film is ultimately about memory.

Empire is perhaps Spielberg's richest achievement, and almost certainly his most underrated film (that it is continually mentioned as among his most underrated if not his most underrated paradoxically undermines the claim, but that is a discussion for another time). The film is brimming with beautiful but abstruse symbolism that requires repeated viewings. Jamie finds himself imprisoned by the Japanese with other westerners in a camp, cut off from his parents. His memory of them slowly fades. Like numerous Spielberg protagonist youths, Jamie finds or at least creates father figures for himself, and, as in other Spielberg films, dueling father figures. In the case of one, an English doctor, he attributes to him own father's gestures (most particularly the rubbing of one's upper lip). In one powerful scene, Jim confesses that he can no remember longer what his parents look like. The overpowering imagery of World War II has stolen Jim's memories of his parents. He is horrified that he can no longer remember his mother's face in particular.

In Hook, a grown up Peter Pan struggles to reclaim his powers in Neverland to retrieve his stolen children. The only way he can do so is to remember what his long lost "happy thought" was. It turns out to be a "happy thought" that reflects the duality of Spielberg as both perpetual child and father himself, a "happy thought" about Peter's own children whose very existence contradict his youthful vow to never grow up. In Schindler's List, Oskar Schindler recollects the wisdom of his father by remembering his most important advice ("My father was fond of saying you need three things in life. A good doctor, a forgiving priest, and a clever accountant.") In Amistad, Cinque remembers "home," the paradise of Spielberg, the final panacea for which all his heroes are searching, while John Quincy Adams is both motivated and intimidated by the shadow of his father, a Founding Father, John Adams, and longingly approaches a bust of the second president while arguing on behalf of the Africans.

In Saving Private Ryan, another "lost boy," Private Ryan, like Jim in Empire before him, can no longer mentally summon the faces of his loved ones, his departed brothers. "I can't see my brothers' faces. And I've been trying, and I can't see their faces at all." Too much has been seen by his eyes to recollect the innocent, comparatively idyllic memories of home. Miller instructs the private to think of them in a context, to think of a certain time. Ryan's memory is of one of his brothers attempting to consummate a relationship with "a girl who just fell off the ugly tree." Elsewhere, another private vocally remembers his sexually arousing experience with a voluptuous woman.

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence finds the concept of memory both human and inhuman. Endowed by Professor Hobby with the gift of the capability of love, David, a Mecha, is programmed by his mother to always love her. Yet Hobby's own tortured memory of his very own lost child is what engendered the exact exterior of David. Memory is made false by science as the concluding act of A.I. sees David experience one final day with a recreation of his mother some 2,000 years after her presumed death. Minority Report philosophically features memory of both past incidents and those that have not yet occurred. John Anderton is plagued by the memory of his son being lost at a public pool. Anderton fuels his more pleasant memories of his son and wife with his holographic recordings at home. In Catch Me If You Can, the nostalgic memories of the nuclear family he loved, with his mother and father dancing with one another on the living room carpet, supply all the motivation in the world for Frank Abagnale, Jr. to use his wiles to bring his mother and father back together. Frank Jr. wishes to "get it all back," referring to the assets the IRS seized from his father. When Frank attempts to settle down in New Orleans with a Lutheran family he's reminded of his parents' ostensible marital harmony when stealing a peak at his fiance's mother and father dancing in the kitchen. In The Terminal, Victor Navorski is determined to collect one last signature of a jazz musician for his father. Protectively he guards his can of Planters peanuts and only tells the woman for whom he's fallen the one's actual meaning. In War of the Worlds, Ray Ferrier cajoles his distraught daughter by playing to her memories of her mother and grandmother in Boston.

Munich is Spielberg's most schizophrenic and self-arguing film, practically at war with itself. At the heart of the matter for Spielberg is family, as always. What constitutes family? What constitutes home? More than any other film of his, Munich debates these questions. For Avner, at the beginning of the film, he is a child turned man in the Kibbutz, made to think that all Israelis are family. Consequently, more than any Spielberg figures before him, he is deeply and irrevocably haunted by a single event, the Munich massacre. As the film progresses, Avner, fatherless after his father, a hero, was imprisoned, like Spielberg sons before him, takes refuge in dueling father figures in a slightly more didactic and political way. Ephraim and the notably named Papa represent contrasting worldviews and notions of familial loyalty and responsibility. For Avner, then, recognition of Israelis as family leads to torment, as the unfolding narrative of the massacre plays itself out in his head.

Now Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is here. More universal than ever, Spielberg's appreciation of and quest for familial memory can be appreciated by an enormous worldwide audience. With an established iconic character, Indiana Jones, Spielberg's newest film is a fascinating, free-wheeling and sometimes puissant Spielbergian extension of of his previous cinematic essays on the subject of familial memory. Moviegoers now are almost in the position of Spielberg's son figures, remembering the idyllic perfection of Raiders of the Lost Ark, painfully desperate to return to such heights, even fleetingly. Indiana Jones himself is another son character whose memory of his distant father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade has placed him on a course he believed would be dramatically different from the father he resented. Naturally, Henry Jones, Sr. (Indy's real name is Henry, too) did not have the same memory of that period of time, as he was primarily dedicated to his own pursuits, namely his undying quest for the Holy Grail.

Crystal Skull is for the first two-thirds of its running time a gloriously silly movie, and unlike the '30s serial feel of the '80s trilogy, this film immediately adapts itself to the 1950s as the new "time" of Indiana Jones and his adventures, making it into a kind of '50s sci-fi adventure. The film opens brilliantly with a carload of American youths racing with an American military vehicle, which is occupied with treacherous Soviets. A moment later, Indy is unceremoniously thrown to the ground. The rush of seeing Harrison Ford place the hat on his head at the beginning of the film is fairly powerful, despite its being used in trailers.

Spielberg seems nearly fully engaged throughout the film's first seventy-five minutes or so. The prospect of introducing the element of Indiana Jones as a father himself, with Shia LaBeouf, a "greaser" seemingly out of the imagination of George Lucas, seems to energize him. This is illustrated in just how deftly he handles the action within and without the mysterious "Area 51" warehouse, in which Soviets search for an extraterrestrial MacGuffin while ignoring the conveniently revealed Ark of the Covenant because they're so militantly atheistic they don't even care about the Old Testament and the occult. In a half-Sovietized Indy world, it makes sense to go the more secular sci-fi route (which is still tinged with religious significance, both narratively speaking, as the indigenous people believed these aliens to be gods, and in Spielberg's spiritually numinous subtext).

Amidst the silliness, Spielberg unfurls a substantial amount of subversiveness. The imagery of the picture perfect American suburbia of the 1950s being a phony, plastic place that is burned and melted down, and quickly blown to pieces and replaced with a foreboding mushroom cloud features a good deal of icy satire married to deeply unsettling simulacrum. A tableaux emerges, one in which a dwarfed Indy looks on at the great, mid-twentieth century apocalyptic specter, and in one serenely dynamical shot, Indy sees how much the world has changed and raced beyond him, like Ethan Edwards taking in the changed familial paradigm of his own existence at the end of The Searchers (which Spielberg has already riffed on to his own inquisitive concernment at the end of War of the Worlds, as Armond White has correctly observed).

There are many pleasures to be had. Ford gives, easily, his finest performance since The Fugitive fifteen years ago. Mostly wasted in puerile nonsense since that film, it's wonderful to see him back, looking older, yes, but dignified. One of the earliest worries about the film--that Ford would be simply too old to don the whip and fedora again--has proven to be unfounded. Ford, like Clint Eastwood, seems well-positioned to age gracefully and make the act of merely aging "cool." LaBeouf and Ford possess a mutually charismatic onscreen relationship as father and son. Ford takes on aspects of Sean Connery's Henry Jones, Sr. in Last Crusade by teasing and somewhat pestering the son. The scene in a diner evokes the '50s wonderfully while allowing a brief but important scene of exposition to play out. The motorcycle chase that follows, which culminates in Indy's college, features all of the equal parts kineticism and humor that one expects from this series of fundamentally frivolous but markedly buoying film franchise. LaBeouf, who many believed would be a failing of the film, like Ford's age, acquits himself rather swimmingly, even if the idea of him taking over the franchise does not quicken the pulse. Cate Blanchett makes a fine impression as a ruthless, hubristically overreaching Soviet agent. A kind of live action Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle she makes this lovingly over-the-top concoction of communist dominatrix archetypes work as a foil for Indy. There are a couple of scenes that display her and Indy's similarities as, respectively, explorers of the East and West, divided by an iron curtain.

Millions of words will be written about Crystal Skull. Millions of words probably have already. The consensus seems to be that the first half is a load of fun, while the second feels slapdash. My own stethoscope found the pulse of the film to be remarkably sonorous for its first two-thirds. Spielberg's interest here is the family union/reunion of Indiana Jones, his son, Mutt and the indefatigable, Hawksian Marion Ravenwood (a returning Karen Allen). Once that narrative objective has been achieved, Spielberg's interest seems to wane, and the Lucas impulses seem to appear more considerably. Spielberg seems to step off the creative accelerator. To grok the transition, one must grapple with the probability that Spielberg's familial concerns of memory, most fascinatingly displayed here with Mutt discovering the importance of learning (Indy's duality as teacher and action hero is given greater import than in any film since Raiders) are the chief enticement for the director. As Indy learns from Marion that Mutt is his son, he switches positions on Mutt's lack of higher education. Earlier he told Mutt that if he wants to fix motorcycles for the rest of his life he should as long as it's what he loves to do. Indy tells Marion to get off Mutt's back with regards to school. Yet when he learns the youth's true relationship with himself, Indy reverses himself, declaring that he must finish school. It's a funny and sweet-natured gag made whole by Spielberg's innate understanding that one's father is charged with being one's protector and model, like Chief Brody in Jaws.

The film's screenplay, a creation of such labor and angst for Lucas and the seeming parade of screenwriters who have taken a crack at it, written finally by David Koepp, is artless and contrived, featuring several characterizations that lack any discernible, easy-to-follow comic book motivations. John Hurt, a marvelous actor, is wasted as Oxley, a demented man apparently possessed by the power of the crystal skull, though the character does serve a purpose. Ray Winstone, however, is saddled with a character whose motivations never make any particular sense because he jumps sides back and forth. If he had just been utilized as a sellout to the commies and left at that, his arc would have worked just fine, but for some reason Lucas seemed to want to feature a miniature version of Anakin Skywalker's arc, where he starts off as a good guy but is poisoned by evil and then returns to being good, and... Who knows? None of it is particularly discernible once he returns to being good after Indy breaks his nose just as he promised he would. Koepp's screenplay, which lacks both finesse and polish, is truly a demonstration in how a film of this nature needs a wholly streamlined "arc"--and not a lost one--in order to fully operate on all cylinders.

Unlike The Sugarland Express, Always, Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal, Spielberg, with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull allows the romantic love story to conclude with unambiguous happiness, as the film ties the knot, so to speak, of the entire Indy-Marion relationship, offering Mutt the nuclear family all sons in Spielbergian cinema crave and need. Indy and Marion's initial banter is quite similar to their Raiders repartees, and Marion's attitudinal persona is deliciously unchanged ("Get your hands off me, you Russkie bastard!" I believe are a fair approximation of her first words in Crystal Skull). The film sparks when they are together, including a moment of undiluted tenderness that finds Indy and Marion nearly kissing before their son intervenes.

Alas, the metaphysical aura and magic of that relationship, which defined Raiders as not just an action spectacle but a simple, sublime love story, cannot be duplicated, just as the magnificent energy of Raiders itself can never be truly duplicated. The CGI of Crystal Skull will make many an Indy fan grimace, wishing for a greater fidelity to the original series. Well, at least Lucas could not convince Spielberg to shoot digitally. If one looks at the original 1981 film as the benchmark for Crystal Skull, one will doubtless be disappointed. Lightning in a bottle cannot be recaptured, and it's either an act of hubris not dissimilar from an Indiana Jones baddie or stunning cinematic charity to even try.

Ultimately, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is, while Spielberg's most minor effort in over a decade--an uneven, slowly deflating balloon of a film--nevertheless a good deal of mindless fun, a purposefully derivative entry that did not need to exist, but its director makes the best out of a slovenly screenplay, and makes the reunion of the "Indy family" of the real world (Lucas, Ford, Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall and many others including himself) and the Indy family of the movies (Indy, Marion and Mutt, sadly recently losing Henry Jones, Sr. and Marcus Brody... hey, where did Sallah go? Middle Earth, right?) into a continuation of his thematic odyssey pertaining to the import, unreliability, contradictions of and undying significance of the memory of family, and the perils of losing it. Marion's statement at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark--"Well, I know what I've got here"--could almost be uttered at the end of Crystal Skull. More than ever before, as Spielberg pressured Lucas to have the film shot only in the United States, wishing to stay as close as possible to his family, this film's director knows what he's got.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Count Yorga, Vampire (1970)

Count Yorga, Vampire (1970), also known as The Loves of Count Iorga, Vampire, written and directed by Bob Kelljan, casts the vampire ethos in a New Age, free-love light with Robert Quarry playing a villainous vampire. The concept for this film was supposedly originally a porno, with hot vamps making out with one another and the sexual scenes playing out more luridly than they do as in the film. The ideas behind these scenes were not thrown out, and Kelljan has one scene in which a couple copulate just yards away from the villainous count's estate. An incredibly brief moment of lesbianism between an older blonde vamp and a redheaded one hints at the eroticism originally envisioned, now made into more of a teasing, cut to be mainstream version.

Count Yorga, Vampire is a grade B movie that seems all the more comfortable being a grade B movie because it could have been a sleazy porno. The film is clunky, awkward and frequently misshapen. It commences with a pleasantly cheesy narration by one of the film's stars, George Macready, who admonishes any skeptics of the vampire legend to realize that vampires are indeed quite real. From there, the movie drops us into a seance conducted by the vampiric titular character. Count Yorga is a Bulgarian immigrant whose handsome (but in this context subtly creepy) features and somewhat mellifluous voice entrance a woman, Donna (D.J. Anderson), whose mother very recently died. This extended sequence concludes with Yorga telephatically telling Donna that whatever he tells her to do--through mind control and otherwise--she must do.

The copulating couple is Paul (Michael Murphy) and Erica (Judith Lang). They, along with Donna's vaguely defined male friend, Michael (Macready), constitute the initial non-vampire cast. Approximately thirty minutes in, Dr. James Hayes (Roger Perry) will join them, but by then one of them--the beautiful Erica--will be well on her way to joining Count Yorga in being a night person.

In one of the weaker plot twists in horror movies, as the two couples depart the count's immodest home in the countryside outside of Los Angeles, the dirt road that will lead them back to a main avenue, the VW bus carrying Paul and Erica becomes stuck in a mysterious mud puddle. As Paul verbalizes that the mud puddle's existence makes no sense because it's a narrow road and surely they would have encountered this mud puddle on the way to the count's digs earlier, and there was no rain, and the mud only seems to exist in a very small part of the road, and Erica says now he's making her worry, laughs are more likely to be heard than worried speculative whispers.

The movie becomes somewhat stuck in the mud, too, as the count tediously waits for the couple to simply give up and screw in the bus rather than try to leave. Afterwards, Paul is knocked unconscious by Count Yorga and poor Erica is bitten. The next day sees Erica being told by Dr. Hayes that she's lost a considerable amount of blood. The bitemarks on her neck cause Dr. Hayes to silently wonder if she has just possibly been assailed by a vampire, but fearing embarrassment he decides to simply let things be, though he insists that she eat steaks, preferably raw ones.

In the most effective stretch of scenes in the film, Erica's transformation is made whole by firstly a violent, inhuman act of hunger and secondly by a complete consummation of her endless, vampiric life created by the terrible Count Yorga. Unfortunately, the film loses sight of Erica after this, and she herself--and her ghoulish fate--becomes at best a tertiary concern. Rather, the film predictably and mistakenly follows the mundane reactions of the three men, Paul, Michael and Dr. Hayes, to the crisis, and for an incredibly long period of time drops the issue of Donna and her mother.

Vampires are an innately sexual symbol, and eroticism is as inherent in the genre as anything else. Count Yorga, Vampire only marginally takes advantage of the very free-love atmosphere of the time period in which it was made. It succeeds in setting this aspect up, though admittedly with an incredibly tame, obstructed sex scene in the VW bus, bizarrely set just down the road from Count Yorga's home. It follows this with the latter half of the best and most traditional sequence in Count Yorga, the ultimate staple of vampire films--that of the inveigling, romantic vampire biting the object of his desire, in this case Erica, his fangs buried in the fleshy throat of his victim and lover. The libidinous subtext of all vampire stories is most explicitly about the vampirically virginal woman having to be suffer pain in order to "reach" the dark, satanical world of experienced vampires, a metaphorical trapping ubiquitous in the vampire canon.

Since vampires represent death (they may enjoy eternal earthly life but as inherently diabolical creatures they are disallowed from entering heaven), it's hardly surprising that they feast on blood, which most unequivocally represents life and the power and force thereof. Their pitiful hunger may be most emphatically derived from their desire for sensual pleasures, distilled into purity by the blood that travels through our veins, in lieu of the more abstract and soulful pleasures of mortal humans. The ways to kill them may differ between accounts--in this low-budget movie, possessing cheap wooden chairs and broomsticks is a good idea in order to make homemade stakes--but in many ways they are already dead despite the bewitching claims by recruiting fanged phantoms that they partake in immortality.

Neil Jordan's excellently mournful adaptation of Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire illustrated the desperate, depressing truth. In that book and film, debasing centuries of feasting on human and animal prey resulted in complete moral disintegration and perpetual horror. Francis Ford Coppola brought the comprehensive understanding of the death of the soul that served the chronicles of The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II and Apocalypse Now like the undercarriage of a vehicle to the naturally enticing vampire genre in Bram Stoker's Dracula. Werner Herzog remade Nosferatu with a considerable emphasis on the naturalness of the vampire's actions. Kelljan seems to partially understand this. Count Yorga's battle of wits with Dr. Hayes at approximately the one-hour mark, which extends into the next evening, gently demonstrates the weariness and dreariness of vampiric "life," to be echoed in the Coppola and Jordan spins on the tale. The vampire is ultimately a bored specter, often compelled by curious mortals to despondently answer the same laundry list of questions over and over again. A cruel, monotonous fate.

Friday, May 16, 2008

In the Company of Men (1997)

Writer-director Neil LaBute says that the screenplay for his film debut, In the Company of Men, was based on one line: "Let's hurt someone." I believe him. In the Company of Men is one of the wickedest and blackest of all comedies, a penetrating disquisition of acidic vileness and monotonous hatefulness.

The film opens in a disorienting manner. Two men speak with one another through a few different lonely settings. This long, sequentially located conversation is about the indignities men go through at the expense of women. "We can't even tell jokes in the workplace!" one gripes. That one is Chad, the other is Howard. Howard's latest relationship with a woman has soured badly. Chad says that his relationship has hit the rocks as well, with a woman named Susan leaving him. The way they speak to one another causes the audience to become all the more temporarily confused. One, Chad, speaks to the other in a manner that indicates that he knows Howard quite well. Howard, meanwhile, seems less open, more unsure of what he should or should not say to Chad. Are they good friends? If so, why does this strange, imbalanced dialogue exist? Why does Howard seem to be a subaltern in this relationship? Why does he appear to not know Chad particularly well?

By beginning the film in this manner, LaBute both complicates and simplifies the picture for the audience. Formally confusing, these early peculiar scenes actually inform the audience exactly of what to expect; an act of disorientation is ultimately an act of revelation. LaBute's endgame is hiding in plain sight. The viewer will have to play catch up, however, as the glorious pay off of both games of the film--the first by Chad and the second by LaBute--come late enough so as to retroactively explain precisely what this relationship between the two men truly is while maintaining both the suspense and overall entertainment value of these respective games.

LaBute's chief game is to make the gradual unmasking of Chad, played to cunning, noxious and vaguely psychopathic perfection by Aaron Eckhart, occur as slowly but gracefully as possible. There is a side to Chad that is doubtless seductive; he occasionally briefly wins the viewer over with his aplomb, and his superficial charms. The chief reason he may sometimes attract our favor is that we have been conditioned what to expect from films with these kinds of films--ones in which an ostensible cad, Chad, learns from his sins and finally changes his ways. That's the second game of the film: Chad's. Chad thinks up an idea to exorcise the two guys' woman problems: Now that they're in a small, unnamed city on work for six weeks (the film was shot in Ft. Wayne, Indiana), they must find a helpless woman, both approach her and date her and after the six weeks, break her heart. "Women. Nice ones, the most frigid of the race, it doesn't matter in the end. Inside they're all the same meat and gristle and hatred just simmering," Chad declares without the least bit of jocoseness.

That helpless woman is a deaf lady who works in the office block named Christine (Stacy Edwards). She's first spotted by Chad, who informs Howard of her existence. As Chad and Howard excel at their trickery and the game continues, one week after another, the film's tone becomes increasingly bitter but somber as LaBute lets there be no question about where he stands. In the Company of Men depicts repellent misogyny but it is not a misogynistic film.

Eckhart's performance is so captivating that his character's act of charm and sensitivity is all the more infuriating. When he asks Christine at lunch, "You feel this could be a relationship, right?" the temptation to vomit is considerable. That's the bravery of the film. Chad never learns his lesson, never becomes a better person. What's most revelatory about In the Company of Men is that it takes itself completely seriously and never even thinks about copping out. Chad's sociopathic outlook doesn't soften; if anything, he seems to go against almost all other male schemers in films with the generic label "comedy": he becomes worse and worse, until finally he's simply monstrous. Chad is a deliberately, finely constructed creature of unflinching loathing, a pathological liar whose emotional cruelty is only equaled by his limitless arrogance.

LaBute's dialogue may owe something to David Mamet, as does the corrupt workplace environment, which feels at least partly borrowed from Glengarry Glen Ross. However, LaBute does put some new spins on it, especially when writing for Howard and Christine. Of all of the attributes of the film, the pacing is probably its greatest strength. There is a definitive beginning, middle and end, with particularly well-molded prologues and epilogues. In the Company of Men's milieu is a kind of sickly banality, which is reinforced by LaBute's deceptively inert blocking and compositions. (Being a first-time filmmaker, this was very likely just a happy accident.)

In the Company of Men portrays two horrible fellows--one, a ruthless sociopath, the other a spineless, insecure schmuck--who do a horrible thing. Some have complained that Christine is portrayed to be too much of an angel of sorts, but this seems more like an assumption. And Christine's "choice" between the two--the handsomer man, attractive and remotely suave while being only superficially sweet and charming--doesn't inspire a terrible deal of confidence. What some critics (mainly men, but be that as it may) seem to think is excessively angelic behavior--being terribly sweet and charming, as well as being quite helpless--are actually characteristics of many women and are exactly what inspire Chad's decision that "she's perfect" for his callous plan.

In many ways, this is the perfect '90s film. It is a tale of two men representing the very worst certain male archetypes. In that happy-go-lucky decade of booming economic numbers and unaccountable businessmen making a killing through lies and distortions, matters of ethicality and propriety seemed to wane in import. The '00s have been just as morally dubious, but clouds of fear and anxiety have darkened the proceedings considerably. This is not to buy into the late Reverend Fallwell's belief that 9/11 was some sort of consequence of American amorality-- that God hid His face from us like ancient Israelites after a period of worshipping a golden calf. It's merely an approximation of the unserious, everyday turpitude of a certain era. The '80s may have been the decade of greed, when it was discovered that "greed" was "good" but the '90s were the decade of the wink and the smirk. This film arguably best exhibits this. And, as such, it ends remarkably perfectly. The unfeeling sociopath gets a blowjob at one in the morning, and the schmuck suffering from a wrecked conscience looks like a raving, mad lunatic.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Point Blank (1967)

Nine years after Hitchcock's Vertigo possibly kicked off "neo-noir" in San Francisco, John Boorman's sophomore film, Point Blank, breathed fresh, truly groundbreaking vanguard "New Hollywood" air into the genre. This visually arresting, creepily atmospheric motion picture is a film that earns the moniker "haunting." Boorman's film has inspired many filmmakers, as it not only continues and enlivens noir in the abstract, but represents a practical cinematic neologism: a thoroughly fascinating blending of New Wave aesthetics and old-fashioned noirish revenge storytelling.

Based with extreme looseness on Donald Westlake's novel, "The Hunter," Boorman's very '60s, psychedelic film begins with twenty minutes of little dialogue. It remains quite laconic throughout. The visuals communicate in a primordial, dreamlike manner, making the film unspool in a kind of rotating, repetitious and Sisyphean narrative. With each thug and obstacle the protagonist vanquishes, another problem arises for him.

Walker is the only name the protagonist of this film has. The film commences where it will eventually conclude, on Alcatraz, where a gang of drug dealers are using the recently abandoned island (Alcatraz ceased being a prison in 1963) as a clandestine drop-off point. Walker and his friend, Mal Reese (John Vernon) and his wife, Lynne (Sharon Acker), ambush the dealers. When the amount of money is not what Mal was hoping for, he decides to cut Walker out of the deal by killing him, taking all of the money and Walker's traitorous wife.

Walker is played by Lee Marvin, who, as I noted in my otherwise unrelated review of The Devil's Brigade (1968), when comparing that war film to The Dirty Dozen (1967), is probably the most fiercely sedulous actor in all of American cinema. As the revenant, Walker, a man who comes back from the dead to reclaim $93,000 after being completely ballasted with bullets by his friend, Marvin finds a role that, for the entirety of the picture, despite the several scenes of physical violence and eruptive righteousness--stemming solely from Walker's belief that the $93,000 belongs to him; evidently he cares not a whit about the double-barreled blast of betrayal he received from his friend and wife beyond their stealing of his money--finds its decibel number small, found in the occasional low growl, perfectly realized in a kind of serene sotto voce.

If Vertigo was about the decimation and eventual deconstruction of its protagonist's humanity, Point Blank is about the spiritually enriching experience of reclaiming it: the entire 92-minute film plays like a meditative afflatus, weighing the metaphysical scales above with Walker's entire being and core. In the DVD commentary, Boorman makes the case that more than any other performance, Walker is the closest approximation to Marvin the man. At one point, Boorman states with chilling eloquence that the "sensitive seventeen-year-old boy" who went to war for his country came back "brutalized." In essence, the war changed the soft-spoken boy into a consummate, still soft-spoken and sensitive tough guy, who, according to Boorman, attempted to express himself through the violence of life and movies. In Point Blank, Marvin is given the opportunity to metaphorically slay the demons of being a sniper for the United States Marines. The revenant he portrays ably and persistently embodies the ethos of the wronged, possibly left for dead soldier, desiring only so much as what he believes he is owed.

Boorman plays with the metaphorical and allegorical, cutting between the realistic world and the symbolic realm of Walker's quest. On a boat that encircles the dreary Alcatraz, the tour guide informs the passengers that escaping Alcatraz is practically an impossibility against the freezing currents that surround the island and Boorman cuts to the celestially mellifluous but entirely illogical imagery of Walker floating on his back, under the aegis of a higher power, as his broken body fantastically makes it back to San Francisco. The ghostly Walker refuses to linger on the shattering reality of his wife's death by suicide. Rather, he focuses with trancelike devotion to the broken perfume and shampoo bottles in the foreboding sink, swirling and pouring about like volcanic streams of lava cascading downward.

Much has rightly been made out of the fact that Walker does not directly kill anyone in Point Blank. His "victims" commit suicide and humorously stumble off of balconies and shoot each other. He uses violence and roughs up multiple thugs, acting more like an uncontrollable elemental force more than a human being, but the deaths that accompany his whole enterprise seem to be more the result of a haunting than the work of an earthly man's involvement. Just as importantly, Walker's emotions are more vividly engendered by the lights and shadows Boorman deftly uses than by emotionally considered narrative beats. Walker, the ultimate sotto voce bad-ass in movie history, moves about like an inwardly feverish, outwardly cool monster. The emotions he experiences are manifested by the rich, psychedelic coloring that splashes across his stoically entrancing face, at a disco light-show where Walker's deceased wife's sister, Chris (Angie Dickinson) works, the cellblock bars--the last sight of Walker's life--are recreated by the swallowing of said face by the deathly chilling shadow of a freeway column, the redoubtable light-and-shadow patterns that fall across said face by the subtly eerie construction scaffolding and even the traditional noir staple of the shadows of Venetian blinds finds itself given newer meaning against Walker's countenance.

Point Blank, despite its 1967 release date, should also be noted for its almost Kafkaesque depiction of the individual fighting off, quite literally, the Organization. In this way Point Blank is a clean bridge between noir/neo-noir and the paranoid cinema of the 1970s (like The Parallax View and The Conversation). Beyond the existential gloominess there is a vibrating, social malaise. It is as though Boorman was able to see into the future and make a film set at a later time that viewed the 1960s without the veneer of joviality that characterized many films (Boorman's first film was Catch Us If You Can, one of the many knock-offs of A Hard Day's Night) of the era. One must wonder if David Fincher looked at Point Blank as a point of reference in making Zodiac, another meditation on the malicious moral pollution permeating beneath the surface of '60s and '70s San Francisco.

The conclusion is equally powerful and ambiguous. By the end of the film, Walker has truly become an eidolon; his presence has slowly but surely become more of an idea, perhaps even an ideal, as he stands in the all-consuming darkness of his own, lived-out, from-the-grave nightmare. The Sisyphean struggle reaches its logical conclusion, and for Sisyphus, once the mountainous ordeal is accomplished all there is to do is to accomplish it all over again. For Walker, with greater insularity than ever before, the mission has finally concluded, as the ghost Walker watches on the island his body never truly escaped. Yet what is superficially a victory becomes the most crushing and depressing of truisms: his quest is all he has left, and so he chooses to prolong it and recreate it, lost forever in the horrors of his own vengeful machinations. Again, with a film this influential among both budding and veteran filmmakers, one must wonder what kind of influence this conclusion had on the ending of Memento (2001).

Point Blank is an elliptical, Resnaisian and Antonioniesque neo-noir made into a wholly engaging experience by the wonderfully truthful lead performance by Marvin, who, with this film, achieved a great, paradoxical feat. He makes Walker into a vulnerable apparition, and a morally beckoning revenant who wields a .357, always coiled like a merciless rattlesnake.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Vertigo (1958)

For a long time "purists" of film noir argued that the genre effectively died with the release of the great, long-underrated Orson Welles 1958 effort, Touch of Evil. Cultural, socioeconomic and political reasons--as well as budgetary ones (most studios began to find more expensive films in the late 1950s more affordable than beforehand, gradually resulting in the hubris of Cleopatra in 1963, given the imprecating reputation of singlehandedly representing Tinsel Town wastefulness, helping to compel Hollywood to change its ways later in the decade)--all arguably colluded to stifle the genre. The average film historian refers to Touch of Evil as the last great gasp of American noir.

Nathaniel Rich, writer for The Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The New Republic and Slate, presents an alternative reading, though: "Touch of Evil (April 23, 1958) is widely considered to be the last classic film noir by critics who cite Orson Welles' hyperbolic manipulation of standard noir conventions; it was the brawniest, most self-conscious noir yet. After this film, noir entered a period of hibernation or ended altogether. I would argue that it entered a fallow period that lasted nearly three whole weeks, until May 9, 1958, when Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo was released, marking the beginning of the neo-noir era."

Fifty years ago today, Hitchcock's Vertigo arrived, receiving mainly mixed notices. A significant number of reviews were outright pans. Time infamously referred to the film as "another Hitchcock and bull story." Today it is correctly seen as Hitchcock's most thematically personal and probing film. At a certain point with the prolific masters of cinema, deciding on which film represents their greatest work almost becomes a fool's errand. The term "masterpiece" by its definition describes the peak of an artist's work, but some artists have proven that you can possess more than one masterpiece. Hitchcock may have the most masterworks of any director, and Vertigo is indeed one of them.

Vertigo was unavailable to the public for decades because along with four other films, Hitchcock left it as a legacy to his daughter. While many American critics grappled with the nearly traumatizing subject matter of Vertigo, the film received a more intellectually enthused reaction in France. Vertigo may have been kept out of the hands of the public for a long time but for Hitchcock's peers and later aspiring filmmakers it was a directorial clinic, a kind of cinematic textbook from which one could grasp many tools. The famous forward-zoom/dolly-out shot Hitchcock utilized to create the "Vertigo" effect has found itself blissfully reused by New Wave filmmakers, Steven Spielberg with Jaws, Martin Scorsese with Goodfellas and others. Meanwhile, vehement Hitchcock mimic, Brian DePalma, virtually remade Vertigo in 1976 with Obsession, co-written by perennial Vertigo booster Paul Schrader. In 1984, the film was re-released to much critical acclaim. Today it is considered by Sight and Sound to be the second greatest film ever made, behind the sacrosanct Citizen Kane.

Vertigo has arguably been, since its release, as Rich has written, the very template by which all neo-noirs base their respective worlds: a psychologically unsound, socially disregarded outcast, beset by vast, incomprehensible conspiratorial powers beyond his meager abilities to fight them off, cynically lured into the world of cloaked but indigenous criminality by the great desired object, a beautiful and two-faced woman. Within the film's first protracted shot is James Stewart's Scottie Ferguson reaching out, grasping the railing of a fire escape ladder. A moment later Ferguson finds himself hanging from the side of a building, horrified, as a policeman attempting to save him falls to his own death.

This scene focuses firstly on Hitchcock's obsession with the image of a man falling (almost always to their death), a show-stopping Hitchcock specialty to be found in Blackmail, Saboteur, The Man Who Knew Too Much, North by Northwest and Psycho, among others. Where Hitchcock takes the scene, however, is important both for the visual conceptualization of Ferguson's affliction of, as he later calls it, acrophobia, and for the gloomy subtext of the entire film. As Ferguson desperately holds on for dear life and looks down, the forward-zoom/dolly-out depicts his vertigo. Yet on a deeper, more metaphysical plane, Ferguson becomes, in essence, what Saul Bellow would call "The Dangling Man." One can look at Vertigo and one can legitimately sense that in at least a metaphorical way, Ferguson never leaves that ledge: throughout the whole film he is dangling about, trying to save himself from oblivion. At the very least, Hitchcock is instructing the viewer with spectacular precision that an essential piece of Ferguson's psychological make-up, identity and sanity have been lost alongside the doomed cop.

The iconic representation of women in Hitchcock's films has never found greater depth and distilled taintlessness than in Vertigo. The master's depiction of sexual power and desire, as thoroughly symbolized by his iconographic treatment of Kim Novak's non-dual dual performance as Madeleine Elster and Judy Barton, is at its boldest and most fetishistically twisted. Vertigo has often been assailed for the way it depicts Ferguson's sickly developed obsession with the woman he believes to be dead (Madeleine), trying with limitless arrogance and chauvinism to remake the second woman (who is, in actuality, the same as the lady he believes has died) into the first because of his completely plausible belief that Judy looks just a little bit like Madeleine. It's a case where the brightness of a vision, of the perfect, idealized woman insidiously blinds the man both practically, in terms of not seeing what perhaps should be an obvious truth, disguised solely by a change in hair color, and spiritually as well, poisoning him on multiple levels of existence. The epistemological foray into the psychosis of Ferguson reverberates as a kind of universal warning to all men not to recreate a woman into an object, even of adoration. This important lesson has probably been most successfully retold in the 2001 Japanese horror film Audition.

To depict is not to endorse or praise. While Hitchcock's attitude towards women may have frightened more compassionately understanding artists like Ingmar Bergman (whose films, while frank and clear-eyed in their appraisal, generally celebrate femininity as much as Hitchcock's continually bump up against and wrestle with it), who believed Hitchcock must have truly despised women, they are more nuanced than that. Just as Hitchcock belittled the bloodthirstiness of many a viewer in Saboteur by scathingly depicting a murder in a movie theatre just as an audience is laughing hysterically at the carnage of a movie-bound death, and slyly admonished eager beavers like Stewart's Rear Window character from becoming too certain that evil lurked behind every drawn curtain, it would be an error to reduce Hitchcock's apprehension and possible mistrust of women to simplistic loathing. As Ferguson's endeavor becomes personal and morbidly sexualized (just because Madeleine isn't in actuality dead does not negate the fact that he is dementedly obsessed with a woman he truly thinks is deceased), Hitchcock subtly reinforces sympathy for the woman the audience should probably detest, not pity, as the camera distances itself from the menacing Ferguson, identifying itself more freely with Judy. As Ferguson's fixation only worsens, more medium two-shots are taken from over Judy's shoulder, allowing the viewer to more gracefully see Ferguson through her eyes. The greatest formal break in a film where Ferguson is almost omnipotent, to be found in practically every single scene, is a short but crucial bit in which Judy writes her deepest, most truthful thoughts out, accompanied by a forlorn, almost endearing voice-over by Novak. For a film not in the least bit discursive, this is an important scene to recognize Hitchcock's ambivalence and even guilt (influenced by his Catholicism, perhaps).

How else can one read Vertigo when placed, as it ought to be, in the overall context of Hitchcock's art? Notorious depicts a cold-hearted American government agent using the feminine counterpart, a woman he simultaneously loves and resents. What begins as a calculated relationship becomes a love affair in which, as the woman notes, the man does not love her. His failure to respond, and his willingness to both idealize and bitingly pity a woman he believes to be untrustworthy in the shadow of her notorious repute; his desirous impulses placed against the mendacity he is called upon by his superiors to employ, and self-hatred based around forcing the woman to become the very thing he detests, a whorish and unchaste woman. After Guy Haines blows his top and screeches that he wants a troubling woman killed, Strangers on a Train places both Bruno Anthony and Haines against the backdrop of steel bars, implicating and briefly imprisoning them both for the crime Anthony deliriously commits.

No, Hitchcock's world did not permit his "heroes" to be left off the hook. After one reads about the man behind the camera, in all of his fascinating dualities, one senses that his was a confessional, tinged-with-guilt cinema, allowing himself to fully embrace and use the medium to search his own soul and find his own answers. In The Wrong Man, Henry Fonda's Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero prays for guidance and solace at an especially dark time, and his prayers are answered with poignant swiftness. One can only hope that Hitchcock's art, serving its creator, helped to answer his.

Cinematic Nightmares: Up Late at Night with Hitch and Lynch

Whether you consider it a subjectively personal declaration of truth or a piece of conventional wisdom, it is a belief to which I definitely ascribe: There have been two nearly unrivaled masters when it comes to detailing the frighteningly innermost nightmares and neuroses that both haunt and inspire them through their cinema--Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch.

One reason I, among others, (rightly) link Hitchcock and Lynch together is because not only do they seem specially animated and aroused by their own nightmares and possibly phobias, but their concerns appear eerily familiar to one another.* When Lynch says that his favorite and most treasured piece of cinema is a sequence in Rear Window (1954), we believe him.

Lynch's cinema is, like Hitchcock's, about voyeurs of one kind or another. For each filmmaker, they found this archetype most preciously delivered in one of their great triumphs. For Hitchcock, Rear Window and for Lynch, Blue Velvet (1986). The numerous parallels are striking. James Stewart's injured L.B. Jeffries believes he's been privy to a murder across the street; Kyle MacLachlan's Jeffrey Beaumont finds a human ear. Jeffries finds himself blocking too much intimacy with Grace Kelly's Lisa Carol Fremont while simultaneously using her to help uncover the truth; Beaumont's most persistent and loyal deputy in discovering the truth of his town is Laura Dern's Sandy Williams. The voyeuristic exploration in each film both heightens and undermines the quest for justice and truth in each film. Hitchcock loved to implicate the audience in their morbidity and general willingness to cast characters as villainous without knowing the full story (Jeffries carries this out in the film). Lynch likewise implicates the audience, less with expository and more with visualization. The way Beaumont gazes at Frank Booth and Dorothy in the closet sparks a collaborative union between artist and audience; like the window frames of Hitchcock's Rear Window, which take on the life of small movie screens into which Jeffries can casually peer, the darkness of the closet in Blue Velvet visually articulates the dynamic experience of sitting in the dark, basking in anonymity, and hopefully allowing for both a cerebral and sensuous journey, not an excuse for embracing faineance.

For a director considered as dark as Lynch, one of the more amusing characteristics of his oeuvre is that his films conclude in some life-affirming and redemptive manner. Whether it's the welcoming at the end of The Straight Story or the happy, musically drenched ending of Wild at Heart, or the ensemble party at the end of Inland Empire Lynch likes to, not so much break the spell, but rather slip into it fully in the final movement of his art.

After seeing The Exorcist at a ridiculously early age, I began having nightmares about it for a considerable amount of time. Images of Linda Blair's head spinning, growling in Latin and being a really bad girl played over and over in my head. Has anyone else ever subconsciously discovered oneself having a nightmare, and, in this discovery, attempted to alter the nightmare into a happy, go lucky dream? I can still remember doing precisely that. Rather than sweatily envisioning Linda Blair underneath my bed, I attempted to dream up a San Francisco 49ers touchdown, or something, anything, to block that horrible possessed girl from appearing in my head whenever she wished to. Usually this approach failed--how can you suppress your own active imagination and methodically scrub it of what is tormenting it?--but sometimes this worked. I often see the endings of Lynch's films in a similar way. They're still dreaming at the end, and the nightmarish exterior has only been temporarily covered by a new dream, one that sees good in perversion, love and reconciliation in sex and violence and harmony in anarchic, evil chaos. It's one way of looking at the coda of Blue Velvet, and it's just one way of looking at Lynch.

*I know for a fact that the great Craig Kennedy sees this very parallel, too, and so I'm certainly looking forward to his comment. (Nudge, nudge.) Ah... Just what an insomniac needs, analyzing nightmares... Goodnight...

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Possessed (1931)

Don't ever let anybody tell you strong women just came out of nowhere in the 1960s. Not in the movies (they've been around since at least Lillian Leighton began starring in silents) and certainly not in real life (they've been around since ever). The greatest bread and butter of pre-code talky Hollywood, and perhaps MGM in particular, was the melodrama, usually of the romantic variety. Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Ann Dvorak, Jean Harlow and numerous other actresses played independent women who practically took off their high heels and threw them through the glass ceiling in their movies.

The pre-code time period of Hollywood can be positively shocking to the novice "pre-coder." It surely was to me when I began watching more pre-code films. One cannot appreciate (or rather regret, or curse) just how dramatic a change the Hayes Code's leashing of American cinema brought about. An entire library's worth of films were vividly adult in orientation, pulpy in presenting their licentious content and liberal in their utilization of steamy innuendos. Today, these films are rightly marketed by that beacon of classic cinema, Turner Classic Movies, in DVD packages, as "Forbidden Hollywood." Just because they're in black and white and in a 1:33 aspect ratio doesn't make them any less naughty; indeed, their bold and brazen tackling of amatory relationships, lustful dames and salacious scandals set against the desperation of the Depression only enhances the titillation.

This is not to suggest that there weren't overbearingly ubiquitous gender roles. It is easy to commend the modern, pragmatically down-to-earth portrayals of these women and their romantic predicaments. These films doubtless showcase an open maturity that would be sent to creative prison for almost three decades, reemerging with the rise of a sexually awakening new generation with films such as Splendor in the Grass (1961) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1962). However, these pre-code films, no matter how outwardly prickly and sensually standoffish, ultimately relied on placing all of the moral weight and responsibility on the woman. Time and time again, it's the female who is called upon by the screenplay, by fate, by the demands of the powers that be, to sacrifice for the sake of the man. This turn in the story normally takes place sometime around halfway or perhaps later in the film, after the audience is lured, ever so slightly, into perhaps gullibly believing the woman will act according to her own best interests regardless of who says what.

Possessed (1931) is such a film. Helmed by Clarence Brown, a regular director of Greta Garbo, and correspondingly a man skilled at drawing out paradoxically larger-than-life and slyly soulful performances from his actors, Possessed radiates with the buoyant, almost unrestrained charismatic charm of Joan Crawford and Clark Gable. Crawford's movements in particular are still quite wedded to the beguiling symmetry silent cinema, with which she was no stranger. (The fact that she was a former Broadway dancer helps to fill in just why she always seems to know precisely how to position herself before both her fellow actors and the camera.) The plot is familiar for its time period: A female factory worker, Marion, lives in a small town and is dully sought after by a childhood friend-turned-co-worker and permanent-suitor, Al (Wallace Ford). Her interest in Al is understandably infinitesimal as he seems as interesting as a lump of rocks. One night she wanders about by the railroad tracks, where she spots a train slowly moving past. In the film's most beautiful sequence, which plays just like a silent film, Marion watches from outside of the train cars as the translucent windows beckon her to peer into the world of luxury. This train has millionaires for passengers, and their bright, silvery world (in black and white) contrasts hugely with the bleakly black world Marion inhabits.

One plot point leads to another, and within a few minutes, in the time of the film, Marion meets Mark Whitney (Gable), an extremely wealthy man. Mark and Marion hit it off and a quick calendar montage takes the viewer from 1929 to 1932. At a most inconvenient time, Al returns, believing that Marion has made a fortune of her own and he remains hopeful in his quest to marry her--as well as enhance his own economic position greatly. In the three years they have "been together," Mark has refused to marry Marion, partly because he has been emotionally wounded by a previous relationship and partly because he does not wish to risk ruining their special bond. Another factor is introduced in the latter half of the film, which is the more melodramatic and implausible of the movie--political considerations. A group of shady, rich investors want Whitney to run for governor of their state and try to convince him that if he were to marry Marion, it would appear he was doing so merely to avoid scandal relating to their already three-year long relationship.

Possessed isn't about Satanic demons but rather is used to connote the state of the Crawford character's existence. The film makes the rather ugly point, all too often, that Marion is at least somewhat "owned" by Mark. Certain curt lines of dialogue are built around this conceit and while it was a decent concept it is hammered into the ground. Likewise, whereas the film begins as a fairly involving character study, it begins to lose grasp of what was working in its favor; the entire gubernatorial plot springs up in order to create the necessary condition by which Marion will sacrifice everything she's ever wanted--marriage--in order to see that her man prevails. If that weren't enough, the film demands she publicly do so again, at the risk of permanent embarrassment, in the film's final melodramatic moments.

Possessed contains many of the contradictions of the pre-code films at large, even if it's far less sexually frank than a great many of them. They feed the viewer the dessert first and then finally force down all of the vegetables. After hooking the audience with the allure of smoldering and sexy starlets coupled with amorously masculine virility, the message--forever that the woman must bend to the greater good--forces itself onto the stage. One can make a compelling case that in portraying this dichotomy, the pre-code films were in actuality only reflecting reality; that, by illustrating the uttermost indignities and unpleasantness a woman is called upon to endure, they remain implicitly pro-woman, anti-hypocrisy. In this way, perhaps, Stella Dallas (1937) is the ultimate post-code "pre-code" film, about the most sacrificing mother ever committed to celluloid (played, both ironically and fittingly by Barbara Stanwyck). And are today's mainstream films all that different? Judging by Iron Man, in which Gwyneth Paltrow's dutiful assistant works tirelessly for the benefit of her aloof male boss, I would contend no, they honestly aren't.

Thieves' Highway (1949)

The recent earthly departure of Jules Dassin at the ripe age of ninety-six made many think about the filmmaker's "position" in the history of cinema. According to Rob Edelman in his International History of Film and Filmmakers (1991), Dassin's career trajectory is a resoundingly tragic one. "...[W]hile [Dassin] made some very impressive films, his career as a whole is lacking in artistic cohesion... The villain in his career is the blacklist, which tragically clipped his wings just as he was starting to fly."

Dassin's story is indeed a sad one. However, he was one of the few American directors, along with Joseph Losey, Cy Endfield and John Barry, to make a significant number of films in Europe after his blacklisting back in the United States. It was in Europe where Dassin made what many argue is his greatest accomplishment, Du Rififi chez les Hommes (1955), better known as simply Rififi. Unlike most directors, who tend to become nastier and darker when they get older, Dassin actually softened as he aged. He made the sweet but frequently misjudged Never on Sunday (1960) and the charmingly lightweight Topkapi (1964) about jewel thieves, a kind of tasty if not wholly well-blended milkshake from a man who used to serve only hard drinks. Aside from those two films, however, his post-Rififi period is considered rather unimportant.

If the two films considered masterful by Dassin--Night and the City (1950) and Rififi (1955)--are indeed respective titans of film noir, then those two films have a couple of siblings, namely Brute Force (1947), a harsh, mostly unsentimental look at life behind bars starring Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn that is a little didactic in its scathing attack on the sadistic and fascistic "authorities" of society, the prison serving as a microcosm of such, and Thieves' Highway (1949), another brutal crime picture that also essays the injustices of postwar American capitalism. One need only glance at Dassin's films to understand their political leanings. The Naked City (1948) is probably more famous than Brute Force and Thieves' Highway but it's Dassin's most dated film of the era, despite its clear influence on countless docudrama police procedurals. (Often the films that inspire the most mimicry become the most dated.)

Night and the City is an exhibition of the excrescence of avarice in the hearts of men who run roughshod, and in that way it's kind of a sequel to Thieves' Highway, despite the fact that Highway takes place in California and Night and the City's home is London. The setting doesn't matter for a number of reasons. For one thing, the sleazy scam artist Richard Widmark plays in Night and the City is an American, endowed with that kind of archetypal sui generis American economic hunger. It's difficult to draw the conclusion that Dassin was particularly hateful of American greed, just greed per se and since he was an American who made American films, knowing other Americans, and, after trying to find his voice, began to specialize in noir with Brute Force, the vast subject of greed is bound to present itself in his films. (It should be noted that a couple of his films pre-Brute Force were modestly meritorious, if quite flawed, like Reunion in France [1942], starring Joan Crawford and John Wayne fighting Nazis and The Canterville Ghost [1944], a decent Charles Laughton comedy.) Noir's nimbus is a dark and wickedly foreboding one, and its characters are routinely motivated by one kind of covetousness or another, and the genre provided a natural entry point for left-leaning screenwriters and directors to artistically reconnoiter the mostly forgotten bowels of society.

What ought to be written about Dassin, though, is that beyond the politics of his films, he was a gifted humanist with an honest empathy for all of his characters. Night and the City and Rififi excel because of this wonderful attribute, and so does Thieves' Highway.

Thieves' Highway begins like many postwar noirs. A young man named Nick Garcos, played with a certain unadorned naturalism by Richard Conte, returns to home after serving his time in the military. The first five minutes of the film are as cheery as can be, as he is reunited with his mother, father and the woman he loves. Then things take a dark turn immediately as Garcos innocently learns about his father losing his legs while he was away. The father, Yanko Garcos, is played by Morris Carnovsky, who himself was later blacklisted as well. The woman Garcos loves is Polly Faber, played by Barbara Lawrence. Yanko tells his son that the man in San Francisco who was supposed to pay him for shipping produce by truck has yet to pay what they agreed on. The man is Mike Figlia, a ruthless "produce scofflaw" as the promotional writing for the film states, and he's played to morally challenged perfection by the deliciously scene-stealing Lee J. Cobb.

Garcos decides to join up with the man who partly owns the Garcos family truck, Ed Prentiss (Millard Mitchell, who's quite strong in his grizzled role), and deliver the first season's shipment of apples from southern California to San Francisco. Garcos and Prentiss drive up to the city by the bay in separate trucks with fine apples.

Complications arise both on the road to San Francisco and in the urban, dog-eat-dog world of San Francisco's produce market, where an endless series of trucks arrive and customers and sellers twist one another's arms to achieve the optimal bargain for themselves. After nearly being killed after trying to replace a flat tire on the roadside, Garcos finally does wearily make it to San Francisco, exhausted from the long, arduous drive. There he quickly meets Rica, played by the earthy Italian beauty, Valentina Cortese, whose English isn't by any means perfect, but between the way she says things and the way she behaves, she nevertheless communicates fluently. She's a lowly prostitute working on behalf of the scamming Figlia to lure Garcos away from his truck, up to her apartment, so Figlia can rip Garcos off and sell the newly arrived delicious apples to customers who have been begging Figlia for apples so long Figlia's ears are ringing with the word "apples."

The mechanics of the plot continue onward, and there is a mightily impressive sequence in which Prentiss loses control of his truck just as Garcos seems to be losing control of his situation in San Francisco. Cobb's portrayal of Figlia--a calculating, businesslike but positively unforgiving gangster (when he hands Garcos the money the avenging son demands after nearly being cut out of the loop, any viewer who expects Garcos to not be later attacked and robbed must be watching their first "adult" film) is what keeps the film's gears moving with an electric power.

The political aspect of the film is unsurprising. The previous year's Key Largo, directed by John Huston and written by Richard Brooks, argued on behalf of the righteousness of the New Deal in juxtaposition to the recrudescent gangsterism of the immediate postwar years. Likewise seemingly countless noirs of this time period were sometimes stealthily, sometimes vociferously, contending that runaway and unfettered capitalism was, while providing for many superficial benefits for some, helping to eat away at the American character, as represented by its society. This was a period of time in which Hollywood, that ever so two-faced of cultural creatures, made films of the "Negro cycle" and "Jewish cycle," and films that specifically targeted more and more social issues than at any time after the Hayes Code was instituted in the 1930s. Ironically, Hollywood's greatest incentive wasn't social obligation; no noblesse oblige here! No, in the late '40s studio bosses could see that they needed to branch out to other areas of American society, "untapped markets," such as blacks and ethnic immigrants.

There had always been filmmakers intent on bringing about new and fresh stories based around important messages, but after the silent and pre-code era ended, the reign of Oscar Micheaux, the first black man to produce feature-length films, beginning 1919 with The Homesteader, almost always dealing with racial antagonisms and complexities, and Frank Capra, who, before he became known as the prince of Hollywood optimism, actually made at least a couple of rough, unglamorous gangster movies such as The Way of the Strong (1928) displaying the vexing position of the criminal in society, ended. After the Hayes Code was imposed, Hollywood went increasingly escapist with some notable exceptions (like, say, John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath) until it enlisted in World War II. After the war, it returned to the sticky and thorny world of commenting on the sociological quandaries and troubles filmmakers saw behind the glossy patina of the great exuberance birthed by the victorious year of 1945.

Hollywood's patience for and interest in politics can be incredibly tepid and fickle, however. Money is, it would appear, more gratifying. Dassin complains in a much later interview on the Thieves' Highway DVD that the film's producer, Darryl F. Zanuck, took over the production of the film behind Dassin's back and shot the film's entire ending, by which I mean the entire last ten to fifteen minutes or so. Almost needless to say, Zanuck's vision compromised Dassin's to the point of breaking it, turning this piece of art into something wholly different from what Dassin surely wished to engender. Rather than following through with the film's promise, which is that guys like Garcos and his crippled father are being eaten alive by sharks like Figlia, Zanuck resorts to trickery. Zanuck wanted Garcos to fall for the lustful Rica and the only way he reasoned this could be done was to have Polly, the object of Garcos' naive affections, betray him when he's already at his lowest. Rica then gets to deliver a speech on how Polly is like virtually all women; at least Rica is not hampered by hypocrisy. This plot wrinkle feels both abrupt and unnatural, as well as very convenient. (And indeed it is, which is why it was thought up.) Zanuck then makes the film deliver a message that seems to openly contradict everything that came before, and it's not that he gives the film a happy ending--it's that, at a critical moment, he has a law enforcement officer tell Garcos, after a violent fight with Figlia late in the film, that there's no need to fight, and thugs like Figlia have to be reserved for the cops to take care of. Obviously, placing a line of dialogue in a film does not by itself negate any point of a film, but the way Zanuck choreographs the scene and allows it to seem entirely earnest, without the slightest hint of buried cynicism beneath the cop's statement, makes the film seem to put on different, less suitable clothing in its concluding stretch.

Dassin, now deceased, almost personifies the Hollywood of the postwar years, and though the blacklisting forever cut his career down to a size that can never be considered reasonable for an artist with his enormous potential, the films he made still stand from the era in which they were made, asking everyone to take a look. They certainly deserve that as well as the willingness to try to understand, to see beyond whatever possible flaws they may have. Thieves' Highway is not Night and the City or Rififi but it's from the same cloth, forged by similar concerns and, despite Zanuck's marring, touched by Dassin's singularly encompassing transcendence.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Devil's Brigade (1968)

The Devil's Brigade (1968), made by veteran television director Victor McLaglen (he helmed seven episodes of Perry Mason, six episodes of Rawhide and a whopping ninety-nine episodes of Have Gun--Will Travel), is a sturdy, workmanlike and unremarkably solid World War II film about a special commando unit comprised of American and Canadian soldiers utilized by Allied generals in Italy.

William Holden stars as Lieutenant Colonel Robert T. Frederick, a terse, tightly-wound and tough guy responsible for folding the American soldiers under his command into a powerful fighting force with Canadian soldiers. Cliff Robertson plays Irish-Canadian Major Alan Crown, Frederick's counterpart. As usual in films about two heroically sketched characters summoning their men in a mutual cause, there's practically no tension whatsoever between these two. There is only one scene in the film that depicts them as anything other than friendly. In that scene Crown cautions Frederick about the misfortunes of war after being told point blank by the rugged American colonel that he's uninterested in molding the unit the way Canadians would because they lost at Dunkirk. (If you didn't know Dunkirk was ultimately a very successful British evacuation going in, you wouldn't learn it from the film.) It's the strongest scene in the film even if it's not terribly fresh on its own.

The Devil's Brigade has been knocked as an inferior rip-off of 1967's Robert Aldrich film, The Dirty Dozen. That film, with its story of a group of misfit prisoners becoming heroes under the command of the incomparatively sedulous Lee Marvin was pure fantastical fiction. Vastly more colorful than The Devil's Brigade, The Dirty Dozen is eminently more enjoyable. The cast makes a difference. In one film you have Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown and John Cassavetes in a pressure cooker. The Devil's Brigade's supporting players include Vince Edwards as a cruelly underdeveloped irresponsible American Major (he smokes a lot and acts gruff and roughly antiheroic, a cliched American staple of the Good War that could and should have become more), Andrew Prine as a fairly nondescript American private, Jeremy Slate as a crafty and suave Irish-Canadian close-combat expert and trainer, Claude Akins as a big, beefy and briefly unsympathetic American lug and Jack Watson as a Canadian corporal who's the object of Akins' blind dislike of Canadians early on--naturally, before the film is over, they become achingly good buddies.

The Devil's Brigade is proof positive that historical accuracy is just fine and dandy, but when you make a film that wants to be a blood and guts war movie with bombastic, time-honored scenes detailing the ins and outs of a barroom brawl, you really should go all the way with it and flesh out the eccentric characters. Brigade feels stuck between a vague, but perhaps honorable, attempt to bridge some welcome verisimilitude to the standard Hollywood war picture and the old-fashioned wartime melodrama boasting an array of wildly idiosyncratic characterizations that might have been made in the '30s and '40s starring James Cagney, Pat O'Brien and others.

The film most bluntly comes to life during its extended sequences of battle, which are given just enough punch to compel the viewer into continuing the viewing, hoping that they will service the drama of the story more than just being almost the sole source of it. Ultimately, the Holden and Robertson characters are almost cyphers. They each have, in reality, engrossing backstories and fascinating backgrounds--the film touches upon these in analyzing their chief difference, being that Frederick has never been in combat and is called on it a couple of different times whereas Crown is seen as something of a near-failure because of his experience in the inferno of wartime hell--but the film never allows those elements to properly blossom, and it's a shame.