Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Razor's Edge

Shenanigans. Elliot Gould, Tom Skerritt, Donald Sutherland
Those of you who think that movies are entirely a visual medium, and that the script is nothing more than a springboard—a prop in a stage play—just try imagining Robert Altman's MASH (1970) without the script (credited to Ring Lardner Jr., who won an Oscar for it). The constant hubbub of overlapping dialogue, the profanity, the screaming, the cockeyed optimism—this corrosive, kinky screenplay does more than delineate character and set situation in the traditional commercial-movie way (advancing the narrative by having the characters "talk" the plot). The screenplay—about Army medics trying to save lives and stave off despair a few miles from the fighting front during the Korean War—binds the visual madness together into a cohesive, realistic world. Lardner and Altman make the movie a critique of highfalutin and hypocrisy—it's blackly funny but not cynical.

Other American movies of the time reflect the Vietnam War, dirty politics, and the country's disgust with itself—Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1967), Irvin Kershner's The Flim-Flam Man (1967) with George C. Scott as an M.B.S., C.S., D.D. confidence man ("Master of Back-Stabbing, Cork-Screwing, and Dirty-Dealing"), Blake Edwards's draggy and tasteless What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966), Ted Post's Hang 'Em High (1968), Don Siegel's Coogan's Bluff (1968). These movies seethe with political corruption, cynicism, and sometimes gratuitous bloodshed (although the carnage in The Wild Bunch is a far more sophisticated, ambivalent violence that critiques questionable notions about manhood). Altman could have gone entirely cynical, too, but what makes MASH so satisfying is that he expresses a realistic idealism—the moviemakers keep their sanity, the way the medics keep theirs, not by a Frank Burns style of phonily righteous preaching, but by demonstrating integrity and compassion, and disdaining hypocrisy and phoniness. MASH is a picture of redemption.

The bloody work of an army surgical unit is shown in a new way—not for didactic distancing (the way wounded men in war movies in the Forties and Fifties were used as homilies, swollen with sacrificial virtue), and not for the repellent gross-outs and shock effects of movies that use violence pornographically. In MASH, the blood-spattered surgical gowns, scalpels, and clamps are filmed for balance (and mostly in medium shot); the talented medics are humanized by working feverishly in rotten conditions to staunch bloodflow or save limbs (sometimes unsuccessfully). Even the satiric butts, like the prissily bossy "Hot Lips" O'Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) and the sanctimonious hypocrite Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), are picked up and dusted off after being scraped across the gravel (although Altman perhaps mishandles Burns's departure by stripping him of any vestige of pride he had—the scene goes for a cheap laugh at the character's expense). The surgery scenes give weight and purpose to the sexual shenanigans and practical jokes. The MASH campground resembles Freedonia, the mythical kingdom of wartime mayhem in the Marx Brothers' great Duck Soup (1933), only it's a Freedonia without the loopy Dada.

Altman's direction is excellent; he and his cameraman abruptly pan and zoom in and out to punctuate visual and verbal jokes, and the hip actors in the cast (who seem to know they're making movie comedy history) take advantage of Altman's generosity by improvising some bits. If the screenplay is a springboard for anything, it's improvisation, and it has the same tone as inspired improvisation. The story goes that Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland quarreled with Altman on the set. But their performances are marvels of corrosive wit, and reflect a cathartic release of tension.

The Last Supper.
The miracle of MASH is that it so successfully combines the taboo breaching of gallows humor—laughing at suffering to stay sane—with the naturalistic coarseness of low comedy: the movie balances bone saws and foul mouths, and spills off the screen in torrents. Although Korea is the ostensible setting, you know that the movie is really showing the madness of Vietnam, and telling America that it's possible to do good work and sustain your sanity and humanity amid the senselessness of bloodshed and strangling bureaucracy. The effect is restorative, a work of humanism. MASH is a Rabelaisian black comedy, and one of the most sensible American movie satires ever.

Elders

Filial devotion. Teiji Takahashi and Kinuyo Tanaka
The 1958 Ballad of Narayama is Kinoshita's unassailable masterpiece. Filmed almost entirely on brilliantly designed soundstages against mattes glazed in gloriously saturated color, this elegy on the transience of life—a lambent work of humanism—is almost unbearably moving. The acts of petty meanness build into scenes of barbaric cruelty, particularly the Amaya episode and the slaughter of Mata (Seiji Miyaguchi) in the final moments.

The film is uncannily beautiful, a moral work of art. It's a transcendent vision of filial love and one of the greatest allegories in movies of how mortality—the all-too-briefness of life—militates against inhumanity, but only fitfully, which is life's insuperable tragedy. As Orin, the old woman whose children are all too ready to abandon her to her terrible fate, Kinuyo Tanaka is the apotheosis of the Shakespearean clown: her wizened face framed by a dirty-blonde bob, she's a miraculous mix of pitiable silliness and heartrending despair. Teiji Takahashi brings understated warmth to his role as Tatsuhei, Orin's one decent offspring, and the two together give the rare movie impression of actual blood relations between actors.

The paradox is plain in Narayama (as it is in its thematic kin, King Lear): because of our bookended lives, if we're sane, we tell humane stories. This particular story is adapted from a 1956 novella Narayama bushiko (Ballad of Narayama) by Shichiro Fukazawa, and was remade in 1983 by Shohei Imamura in a grittier, naturalistic style.

Out of Italy

The celebrated partnership of Vittorio De Sica, an actor who became one of Italy's—and the West's—most revered directors, and Cesare Zavattini, a screenwriter and film theorist, was inaugurated in the movies with the luminous The Children Are Watching Us in 1944, although the two knew each other for more than a decade prior. Together, their collaborations of Italian neorealism were more mystical and sometimes allegorical than the harsher social portraits of corruption and decay in the work of other Italian neorealists like Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini. The De Sica-Zavattini films are smaller-scale studies in frailty and innocence; instead of making Grand Statements about politics and society, they paint individuals in unselfconscious but lyrical strokes—prose poetry character studies. If, years after viewing, we've forgotten the scenes of wartorn Rome and its political infighting in Rossellini, we probably still remember the disillusioned faces in De Sica.

Zavattini's realism is an homage to the nineteenth century Russian novelists, particularly Turgenev and Tolstoy. (Jean Renoir paid tribute to the Russian and French realists in much the same way.) De Sica, a great director, uses actors' faces and classic narrative conventions like linearity and situational irony to tell stories of the bereft—losers, dreamers, and children enduring the cold hopelessness of life on the skids. He hits his mark, too. The emotional impact of these movies wells up like a rising tide, evenly and surely. In the final scene of The Children Are Watching Us, the camera fixes on the back of the abandoned child as he trudges away, and the indictment of all squabbling, selfish, vain adults is complete.

Scenes from childhood. Luciano De Ambrosis
The De Sica-Zavattini collaboration produced about twenty films, including the hallowed masterpieces Shoeshine (1946), Bicycle Thieves (1948), Miracle in Milan (1951), and Umberto D. (1952). The Children Are Watching Us isn't quite one of the masterpieces, but its incandescence and Petrarchan sweetness can't be shaken off easily. It points the way to the fables of childhood in Truffaut, the Taviani brothers, and Shunji Iwai.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Headlines

Just about every venerated American institution takes it on the kisser in His Girl Friday (1940). Nothing is sacred—politics, marriage, motherhood, sentiment, patriotism, and the values of the Fourth Estate all get deveined and dunked in butter like shrimp. The prodigious Howard Hawks directs for breathless laughs; he and his actors (Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Clarence Kolb, Porter Hall, Ernest Truex, Roscoe Karns, Frank Jenks, and Regis Toomey) generate a mind-blowing tempo in the dialogue. This fast-talking high point of screen newspaper comedies raises the American movie vernacular to a Benzedrine-fueled art. His Girl Friday is the Menckenesque city of salty reporters, toadying careerists, gangsters, politicos, and simpletons—a modern commedia dell'arte with its character types. It shares with the Renaissance tradition an emphasis on character acting and an exuberance that reminds one of improvisatory theater. The reporters work for various dailies and travel in packs, which is weird considering they're all out to scoop the others. These guys have no patience for pretense or tender emotions, and they cut through the bull. Grant and Russell—a controlling editor and his independent-minded reporter—parry and thrust, and their erotic verbal jabs are a classic American mating. They were the screwball genre's best pairing since Fredric March and Carole Lombard in Nothing Sacred (1937), another skewering newspaper comedy (accented by Walter Connolly's conniption fits). His Girl Friday is both knockabout farce and sharp, modern satire, and speeds along from start to finish on a solid track of one-liners, squib, and broadside. Thanks to the overlapping dialogue (a technique used before in movies), jokes whiz by you so fast that if you stall on any one to replay it mentally, you're liable to miss the next two.

In the 1930s, Hollywood comedies were at their toughest and most satirical. They were designed to get Depression-era America out of its funk, and these tart, springy romances, newspaper farces, and review-style musicals were huge successes. An intermingling group of 1920s newspaper columnists, critics, and playwrights on the East Coast gave American talkies much of their whiplash energy and smarts. In one of the great migration stories in the history of popular art, many of these wags wound up in Hollywood—year-round sunshine and easy money. The screenplays they wrote are filled with smart, sardonic dialogue—crude, quintessentially American poetry. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote The Front Page (the 1928 Broadway hit from which His Girl Friday was adapted) and Hecht wrote Nothing Sacred, Charles Lederer wrote the screenplay for the first movie adaptation of The Front Page in 1931 as well as the screenplay for His Girl Friday, Jules Furthman wrote the pre-Code Jean Harlow newspaper comedy Bombshell (1933) and two or three enormously entertaining Howard Hawks classics (1939's Only Angels Have Wings, To Have and Have Not in 1944, and The Big Sleep in 1946), Herman Mankiewicz co-wrote Citizen Kane (1941) and adapted the George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber play Dinner at Eight for the screen in 1933, Nunnally Johnson wrote the riotous comedy Roxie Hart (1942) starring Ginger Rogers and Adolphe Menjou (who played the editor in The Front Page in 1931), Robert Benchley returned to Hollywood during the worst of the Depression to write features and star in several popular shorts, and Donald Ogden Stewart wrote The Philadelphia Story (1940).

News ink. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell
By the middle of the 1940s, the era of carefree screwball stories about newsmen, wisecracking society dames, and daffy heiresses was largely played out, and His Girl Friday was thus not only perhaps the greatest but also one of the last of its kind. American audiences turned their attention to events in Europe, and found there wasn't much left to laugh at. Movies got propagandistic and returned to serious, "noble" homefront themes, as in Mrs. Miniver (1942), Since You Went Away (1944), and The White Cliffs of Dover (1944). The war sapped comedic energies and soured the public on its old urge to satirize its sacred cows.

Staying Alive

Wolves. Nobuko Otowa, Kei Sato, and Jitsuko Yoshimura
Onibaba (1964), the Kaneto Shindo film I'd been meaning to see for ten years, isn't particularly terrifying or scaled to overwhelm. But its photographic inventiveness and shocks (which are both visual and sexual) have an atavistic creepiness; watching these famine-stricken peasants run through fields of Susuki grass, wolfishly chasing down mortally wounded soldiers, puts your nerves on edge.

Like the barren heath in King Lear, the setting is a Hobbesian marketplace of killing, pilfering from the dead, and exchanging the plunder for food. The Japanese countryside is a wasteland, bereft of a moral center. The social hierarchy (during a period of medieval civil war) is nothing more than an immediate function of who cooperates with whom, or who preys on whom. It's often the smaller, nimbler predators—like the two women—who maintain control. But the movie's point of view is that "nature red in tooth and claw" will out; alliances disintegrate amid a heated atmosphere of animal sex and betrayal. In the end, the two women and their male partner are revealed as opportunistic demons who have sacrificed their humanity.

Onibaba isn't as all-encompassing as Kon Ichikawa's masterpiece Fires on the Plain (1959)—the latter has a forgelike intensity that makes it a visionary, emotional experience. But the two movies have similar themes: the grisly horrors of war, cannibalism (figurative in Onibaba and literal in Fires on the Plain), and the black comedy of the superior strength of flesh over spirit.

Pretensions

"[It] possesses a distinctly playful atmosphere and carefree cadences." [The Criterion Collection catalogue]

No, it most certainly does not. All These Women (1964) is a limp, desultory farce. Apparently, Ingmar Bergman, one of the most sophisticated spiritual artists in film—the equal of the great, dour existentialists in the other arts—decided to write and direct this disoriented, enervated gimmick in order to make extra money. Bergman and Sven Nykvist developed a pastel color palette for the movie, which gives the nonsense onscreen far more visual depth than it merits.

The red and the black.
All These Women is like watching discarded reels of Jacques Tati, Woody Allen, and Blake Edwards, without any of their gift for low farce. This movie gives you a chance to see some of Europe's best actors embarrass themselves—including Jarl Kulle as the reptilian critic who invades his idol's manor house, Eva Dahlbeck as the wife of the cellist, Bibi Andersson as the cellist's mistress, and the sexy Harriet Andersson as the gamine housemaid (she's like a Swedish Joan Blondell). Kulle moves from one lady to the next in the Continental style; it's a love round interspersed with witless dialogue like this: "He has such wonderful fingering. Isn't that what it's called?" Have we piqued your interest yet?

I don't believe I've ever seen a movie that's both stylishly pompous and ham-fisted. I certainly never expected to see a pie thrown in someone's face in a Bergman film. But if this knucklehead production had happened on the stage, I think people would have thrown tomatoes.

Show Biz

Dollar for dollar. Ginger Rogers
Ruby Keeler, bless her heart. It's tough to say which skill of hers is clumsier—her hoofing or her acting. But no matter, because her real expertise in Mervyn LeRoy's entertainingly dumb-ass Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) is mooning after Dick Powell. Powell's a young songwriter in a tenement room across the alley from Keeler and her girlfriends Ginger Rogers, Joan Blondell, and Aline MacMahon. The girls want to be in show biz, but it's the Depression and shows keep closing down because producers can't pay the rent.

The movie, an early thirties Warner Bros. classic that certainly deserves its status, goes in a million different directions: it's a cascade of daffy visual non sequiturs, thanks in large part to a series of libidinous musical numbers created and photographed by Busby Berkeley. James Agee wrote about a 1944 Preston Sturges movie that it "raped the Hayes office in its sleep," and there's plenty of pre-Code monkey business going on in Gold Diggers, too. This is undoubtedly the most manic, vivacious Depression you've probably ever seen in movies, and it's framed in a soft, silvery Art Deco production design. Ned Sparks is the irascible, put-upon producer with faith in Powell's talents, Ginger Rogers is a superb camera subject (singing "We're in the Money" in pig Latin), and the excellent Joan Blondell, with her bee-stung pucker, adds fizz to this sparkling champagne. And there's poor Ruby Keeler, amateurishly puffing her way through a pair of good songs with Dick Powell, but even her inability to keep up with the studio orchestra seems bizarrely right; as she manages to do in many of her movies, this klutzburger wins the audience over. You're both flabbergasted and amused by her—when she says her lines, she crinkles her face with pride at having remembered them. Aline MacMahon plays the wisecracking pragmatist with many of the best punch lines (the same role that stars like Eve Arden and Paulette Goddard played a decade later).

A huge hit in 1933, Gold Diggers of 1933 must have sent audiences out feeling buzzy and lighthearted. In its uniquely American energy and its punchy, sexy tomfoolery, Gold Diggers is emblematic of Hollywood's life-affirming inclination, at a time of pervasive hardship, to good-naturedly remember the nation's forgotten men.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

The Greatness of Audacity

Mesmerizer. Jack Barrymore
In answer to the question: What is the greatest American movie performance of the early sound era? Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931) or Scarface (1932)? Chaplin in City Lights (1931)? Jimmy Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931)? Jeanne Eagels in The Letter (1929)? Marie Dressler in Dinner at Eight (1933) or the barely remembered Emma (1932)?

John Barrymore (Broadway's Orson Welles) in Svengali (1931) unpacks theatrical traditions and his own sly, self-referential archness into a variety of grand gestures—the sing-song accents, interrogative upturns, and squeaky upper registers of the Eastern European Jew; the static postures and bearing of the angular nobles in the Eisenstein historical epics (Barrymore is made up to resemble Nikolay Cherkasov in Ivan the Terrible); and the tortured self-doubts and sadism of the Shakespearean villains. Barrymore is so audacious that all these styles blend seamlessly—he gets to the essence of the art of acting: creating a character that is both lifelike and larger than life. When his great death scene occurs, you're sure he's going to spring uncannily back to life. And the special effects in the mesmerism scenes have sensual heat: Svengali's eyes glow like molten metal.

Watching John Barrymore spellbind in Svengali is like watching a fabled stage performance from some long-lost age of theater. He stalks the floorboards in high-heeled boots and overcoat, as gaunt as a vampire. But his voice and mien are so commanding that the gothicism never degenerates into camp. Like Karloff's terrifying, confused monster in Frankenstein or Sam Jaffe's nebbishy Grand Duke Peter in Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress (1934), the experience is too appallingly profound for camp.

Screwball

The loose, romantic playfulness of Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) is lifted from screwball comedy of the 1930s. This laid-back romp gives Woody Allen and Diane Keaton an opportunity to be Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938), Ray Milland and Jean Arthur in Easy Living (1937), and Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche in Midnight (1939), and it has the most sustained tempo of any of Allen's movies of that time. (Alice, from 1989, is a lovely flight fantasy for the first hour, but gets bogged down in marital melodrama in the last half—its whimsical romance dissipates into sodden confusion and leaves moviegoers bummed out.)

Daffy detectives. Diane Keaton and Woody Allen
This movie's central conceit is the romantic gambol of the old screwballs: the girl (often played by Carole Lombard, Irene Dunne, or Jean Arthur) is frisky (and usually poor) and in the mood for an adventure, while the shy, straightlaced guy wants no part of it, but nervously follows her anyway because she's such a babe—Henry Fonda was the quintessential lovestruck nerd in The Lady Eve (1941). Here, it's Keaton, back to form after The Lemon Sisters (1990) and the atrocious Father of the Bride (1991), leading a constantly protesting Woody Allen around with a ring in his nose, sneaking into people's apartments to scout for clues.

Like those earlier screwballs, Manhattan Murder Mystery has its classic sequence: Allen, Keaton, and friends (Alan Alda and Anjelica Huston), a quartet of intrepid amateur detectives, concoct a plan to blackmail the suspected killer by playing prerecorded messages on a cassette tape over the phone to simulate an actual conversation. Naturally, the tapes get all jumbled and the "conversation" hits a snag and ends up sounding like gobbledygook. It plays better than it sounds—it's a sidesplitter. The last scene, too, is delightful—a climactic shootout amid a maze of mirrors and projection screens (although it was not an inspired idea to project The Lady from Shanghai on one of the screens just in case the audience can't quite figure out in which old movie they've seen this shootout before).

The movie is a plush, snug recliner: you can settle yourself in and have a pretty good time watching Keaton and Allen ham it up and banter inventively—they make marvelous company—while old movie references fly back and forth. Things are close to the spirit of the madcap '30s here—a lot closer in spirit than Peter Bogdanovich's nagging, largely witless What's Up, Doc? (1972) or even several of the 1980s Allen comedies. In Manhattan Murder Mystery, Woody Allen got his groove back.

Blubber

What made Rex Harrison want to be in Dr. Doolittle (1967)? Was he strapped for cash? Did he screen Barabbas (1961) or Fantastic Voyage (1966) or The Vikings (1958) and have an overwhelming urge to be on a set with Richard Fleischer? Was he hankering to deliver dialogue written by the insipid Leslie Bricusse, or sing-speak her mind-numbing songs, with their canned Broadway blandness, about the virtues of vegetarianism? Did Harrison think that his style of drawing-room urbanity would be complemented by the obnoxious Anthony Newley, whose acting career was distinguished by broad yuk-yuks and refrigerated ham?

Did Harrison think that audiences in the late sixties—Film Generation college audiences who were getting turned on to European directors and experimental styles—wanted gut-busting dances and stale, phoned-in stupidity from a bygone age of movie musical crap, an anachronistic big-studio production that's too long for kids to sit still through and too asinine for normal adults to stand?

Maybe Harrison had a more practical motive. Did 20th Century-Fox offer to put his grandchildren through college?

Seal abuse. Rex Harrison
This monstrosity of a musical achieves a dubious distinction: even at a time of awful musicals from the major studios, it's completely devoid of merit. Not a single scene, not a single song, not even a single sentence has any charm or appeal. It's in another universe entirely from the sometimes brilliant and usually entertaining Freed Unit musicals from MGM—Singin' in the Rain (1952), The Band Wagon (1953), It's Always Fair Weather (1955), and a few of those dazzling Judy Garland musicals.

It's hardly surprising that this waste of celluloid has absolutely nothing in common with the craftsmanship and energy of Arthur Freed. What is surprising is that contemporaneous movie musicals—blubbery movies at the time like Camelot (1967), The Happiest Millionaire (1967), Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), Hello, Dolly! (1969), Paint Your Wagon (1969), and Sweet Charity (1969), nearly all of which were ruinous disasters that ultimately sank the big Hollywood studios financially—have moments with some appeal: a passable number here, a clever bit of comedy there. Dr. Doolittle stands apart even in such a crowd; it may be the worst stinking musical of its time.

Every response you're likely to have, scene by scene, song by song, seems inadvertent. Watching the posh, sexless Harrison in his silk opera hat sing a love song to a seal doesn't exactly generate tender feelings in you; you're more likely to react with revulsion. For hapless viewers, including the kids whom parents probably dragged to this thing in droves in 1967, this beached whale of a movie is human–animal abuse.