Thursday, October 15, 2020

Connections

In an epigraph, Wim Wenders dedicates Wings of Desire (1987) to Yasujiro Ozu, François Truffaut, and Andrzej Wajda, but in its imagery and tone, his movie has more in common with Fellini (Nights of Cabiria, 1957), Tarkovsky (especially Stalker, 1979), and the great Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer, whose incandescent Day of Wrath (1943) and Ordet (1955) and Vampyr (1932) glide through dreamlike landscapes of pain and unfulfillment. Wings of Desire might have been called Wings of Longing — the angel Damiel longs to experience the physical connections of space and time that human beings have, while everywhere the human inhabitants of West Berlin, whose thoughts the angels can hear, long for various connections of their own: to parents or children, to spouses or lovers, to the past, and even to the self.

The angels see this earthly realm in monochrome when they’re most removed from human experiences. But the end of the picture explodes in color as Damiel “crosses over” (in an amusing bit, he sells his angelic breastplate in an antiques store). Damiel is obsessed by his attraction to the trapeze artist and the lusty simplicity a group of children take in a circus performance. He longs to feel what they all feel, and his desire has a childlike naïveté; he doesn’t seem to recognize the unfortunate side of earthbound mortality.

Angelic observer. Bruno Ganz
I think the film has a largely warm-hearted appeal, but its unspooling of interior dialogue (which reminds one of café jazz poetry) is intended to create an atmosphere of sweeping stream-of-consciousness — a sort of Jungian collective language of the Shadow — and I think we’re really not supposed to “interpret” or explicate the arcane prose-poetry. Taken individually, each mental utterance sounds like a bromide, and the overall effect can be deadening if, like Damiel, you’re searching for connections. (Rilke apparently inspired much of Peter Handke’s screenplay.)

In a way, the lack of linguistic coherence works in the movie’s favor. The compression of time in traditional narrative is almost entirely abandoned, and you do feel as if you were floating around Berlin with the angels without a sense of beginning, middle, or end — the rising action, climax, and denouement of dramaturgy. You expect temporal and even spatial constructions that just aren’t there, and you may get caught searching for phantoms. The movie might have made a great impact as a silent classic with few title cards, although you’d miss the eerie, evocative score. When the theorists talk of “pure cinema,” they may have something like this in mind. Fairly early on, Wenders gets you to feel cut adrift, like a buoy, from spatiotemporal anchors (the movie subverts your geographic information system). The camerawork is remarkable — it seems unbound by space the way the pacing seems unbound by time. Did the cinematographer (Henri Alekan) use cranes and a Steadicam (which Kubrick used in The Shining in 1980) for all those marvelous aerial tracking shots? Alekan’s work unifies this model of personal filmmaking — it’s transporting. Irrespective of the otherworldly elements, the movie’s experimental spirit takes you right to the core of some timeless human questions.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Codgers

Watching Lindsay Anderson’s shameless The Whales of August (1987) is like being in a mausoleum. But the more energetic scenes are akin to rummaging around in the attic of the Haunted Mansion. This mélange of codgers — Lillian Gish and Bette Davis and Vincent Price and Ann Southern and Harry Carey Jr. — is rather ghoulish; the script drones on and on about the past, and before long you’re not entirely sure whether you’re looking at the actors in real time or at newsreel footage of dead movie stars. I kept expecting a Eugene O’Neill play to erupt at some point, with recriminations and accusations and booze late into the night, but the only thing that really happens is that the floors creak.

I don’t remember whether there were any whales, but Vincent Price catches some fish, though God knows how, considering that he doesn’t appear to have the coordination to cast his line into the surf without falling off the rocks. I’ve read that many old stars, from red giants like Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea to white dwarfs like Fred Astaire to black holes like Shirley Booth, were asked to take part but turned it down. Why would an old fart whose movie career is a distant memory return to the screen in this — an adaptation soaking in formaldehyde of a play that embalms its characters before they’re laid out on the coroner’s table?

Silver treasures. Gish and Davis
What is an actor at any stage of life supposed to do with lines like “Photographs fade, but memories live forever”? The dialogue is all mothballs and tea rose: “I have once again been set adrift.” — “Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. Maranov.” — “Oh, you needn’t be, my dear. I have often been adrift, but I have always stayed afloat.”

A little later, the on-screen embalming is stiffer than ever: “Do you think one can live too long?” — “Life can never be too long.” — “Even if one outlives one’s time?” — “One’s time is all one’s time, even to the end. You see out there, how the moon casts its silver treasures along the shore? There is a treasure that can never be spent.”

Sic transit Lillian and Bette.

Monday, August 10, 2020

The Revolutionary from Bonn

The Ninth Symphony by Beethoven was a revolutionary musical act in 1824, when it premiered in Vienna. Sections of Kerry Candaele’s Following the Ninth: In the Footsteps of Beethoven’s Final Symphony (2013) are stirring, but the various pieces aren’t always tied together thematically and the links between art and social act are too abstract. Your mind fills in with metaphors of brotherhood and liberation and exaltation lifted from the poet Schiller, whose “An die Freude” inspired Beethoven.

But the movie works on a more primordial emotional level. I think it’s a beautiful document of how art and politics can intermingle, throwing a blazing light on the turmoil and despair that keep various social systems locked in darkness. There’s a fervor and urgency in the film that magnify the dramatic news footage of social struggle in China, East Berlin, Chile, and Japan. 

Tiananmen Square.
This war-horse of a symphony has a long history of extramusical use and abuse — it’s widely known that Beethoven’s highest, most ennobling popular work has been co-opted for noxious political ends. Casting its extraordinary shadow across the nineteenth century, it has shepherded human mass movements. Each of the four movements of the Ninth corresponds to a section of the movie. On paper, that structure probably sounds programmatic and boring, but in practice it doesn’t mar the experience. For all I know, Following the Ninth could have started as a position paper — I know practically nothing about the filmmaker other than that he’s a political science professor — but it’s ultimately too ebullient for such doctrinaire, dispassionate nonsense. It generates its own narrative momentum illustrating how the contours of the symphony’s four movements, especially the final choral section that adapts Schiller’s verse, delineate the movement of various social and political acts around the world: revolution against tyranny, the struggle for political rights, and community response to natural disaster.

One of the young Chinese subjects in the movie, a student leader of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, at one point says that Beethoven created an “ambience of hope for social and political change.” The movie doesn’t answer your every question (why this particular symphony, for example, and not any number of other staples of the repertoire?), but it certainly piques your interest in how culture and music and politics can get all jumbled up in an interpretive play of passion that fires entire movements across the globe. We don’t see that depth of response in movies all that often.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Nazi Drag

It isn’t often, I suppose, that one sees a movie about an SS officer at a concentration camp and his young victim, and the victim is more unhinged than he is. The Night Porter (1974), by the mildly perverse but supremely ungifted Liliana Cavani, takes place in 1957 Vienna but repeatedly flashes back to wartime to give us the seed of their strange relationship. In flash-forwards, Max (Dirk Bogarde) and Lucia (Charlotte Rampling) go at each other like deranged rabbits. Then, to get in the mood all over again, they throw jars on the floor and walk barefoot over the breakage, sucking each other’s bloody wounds like vampires. You see, Max was a Nazi and Lucia was the young, androgynous prisoner he stripped bare, over and over, until her numbness transformed into sexual thrill. Rampling seems the perfect object of a prim Nazi officer’s ambiguous desire: unclothed, she resembles Donatello’s hermaphroditic David. Like two case studies out of Krafft-Ebing, Max eroticizes Lucia’s powerlessness, and she fetishizes his black-booted authority over her (a sort of Stockholm syndrome turned on its S & M head). They meet in a hotel lobby twelve or so years later; he’s a hotel porter and she’s the bourgeois wife of a conductor who’s on tour in Germany with his production of The Magic Flute (in one interminable scene, Max and Lucia keep glancing furtively at each other from separate rows during opening night, and not even Mozart can get the upper hand).

Film freak. Dirk Bogarde

But The Night Porter is atrocious without being especially shocking. You could say it fails as pornography, sexual politics, character study, and social criticism. It certainly fails as decadent art—it pales in comparison to outstanding achievements by Cavani’s countrymen Bellocchio, Visconti, Fellini, and Antonioni in all those areas. Scenes in The Night Porter are so incoherent that the whole movie feels like a cut-rate attempt at a Dada romp, with puzzling outbursts and stony-faced stares punctuating draggy, taciturn dialogue. The movie isn’t even amusingly campy—although one scene, a flashback to the homoerotic carryings-on at an officers’ pleasure party, features Rampling doing a topless striptease and singing a lilting Weimar-era tune as she wriggles and fondles herself, which is obviously a send-up of Dietrich in her scandalous “When Love Dies” number in Sternberg’s classic Morocco (1930). Three guesses as to who is sexier and more iconic.

Is there anybody else of note in this? Let’s see, there’s Gabriele Ferzetti (the enigmatic playboy in Antonioni’s great L’Avventura), who plays the psychiatrist Hans (boy, does he have his hands full!) and Isa Miranda as the countess, who is supposed to be deliciously decadent. The movie treats them both shabbily; they’re turned into crude, distorted jerks, and your moviegoer’s pleasure in their past roles (she worked for Rene Clément and Max Ophüls, among others) is sacrificed to Cavani’s putrid ineptness. Nobody comes out of this mess looking good as an actor, not even Max’s cat or the neighbor’s dachshund—the tabby sits passively, obviously finding the movie as boring as we do, and the dog runs out of the frame entirely. A truly inspired director would at least have supplied a closing shot of a church mouse, “hidden away” in Max’s apartment.

And what is it with leftist European filmmakers like Cavani and Alain Resnais who made movies about the death camps but never once mention the word “Jew” in the script? Were such enlightened exemplars of political progressiveness actually proud of themselves for their bravery?

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Minor Dundee

After rewatching Major Dundee recently because I had never seen the restoration on it (TCM aired the so-called producer’s cut in November 2019), I’m not convinced that the restored scenes help clarify many of the plot loopholes people used to complain about. Sam Peckinpah still loses control of the material about halfway through, despite the undeniable power of individual scenes and set pieces, although the full cut makes the movie seem less like a studio hatchet job than it used to seem. Peckinpah was inebriated most of the time during the shooting, according to Charlton Heston, so it isn’t surprising that he was unable to exert a hang-together coherence over his script (the well-made play format was never his strength as a director, anyway). Written largely on the fly after production began, it’s brilliant in patches but also meandering and overreaching.
Man with a mission. Charlton Heston

When you watch Dundee from 1965, you see the burn in Peckinpah’s molten vision 
— the deconstruction of Old West fables — but you also feel the bleary result onscreen of Peckinpah’s confusion with the Melvillean morality play of obsession. It seems as if the whole sordid path of Peckinpah’s infamously self-destructive career is bottled up in this movie.

Some of the actors pull through with career-defining performances: Charlton Heston, James Coburn, and Warren Oates (in his big capture scene, his crafty deserter demands his life rather than pleads for it). One shot of the troops crossing a river in the fog rivals Kurosawa for kinetic majesty, but other scenes — especially of festive, cavorting peasants (their dancing and eating are framed in atrociously noble terms) or of speechless young lovers — are stultifying. How drunk do you have to be to copy so little of Kurosawa’s best and so much of John Ford’s worst?

Thursday, July 9, 2020

True Gold and Fool’s Gold

The biggest flaw in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), one of the Hollywood studio system’s mysteriously wrought miracles (the mystery is how people of exceptional talent were occasionally able to beat back the deadening forces of a mass-market industry and bring personality and vision to the screen), is a flaw that really doesn’t affect your enjoyment of a damn good movie. Sierra Madre is a superb adventure picture, but the character transitions (largely in Humphrey Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs) from decency and generosity to greed and sociopathy seem a little forced and abrupt. These dramatic transitions occur in five or six specific scenes in which two characters confront each other—Dobbs and Howard (Walter Huston), Dobbs and Curtin (Tim Holt), and occasionally Howard and Curtin, who, in a scene of comedy that rises to classic French farce, eye each other warily from their bed rolls at night as they take turns getting up to “check on the burros.” In fact, the movie is better at dramatizing Dobbs’s cynicism and violence in the opening scenes, in the way he interacts with the Mexican boy (Robert Blake) trying to repeatedly sell him a lottery ticket and the work overseer McCormick (Barton MacLane, in an oily, great performance). With premonitory irony, Dobbs whips around on the young boy and yells, “Get away from me, you little beggar,” only to walk up to a mysterious tourist in white (John Huston) and ask three times for a handout. The movie is filled with a number of sophisticated layers of irony; the story’s richest veins are mostly comedic, not mineral.

Once Dobbs, Howard, and Curtin are out in the wilderness on their trek for gold, the action is handled beautifully by the script, which doesn’t freight the story with premonitions of catastrophe like a ponderous Robert E. Sherwood play—whose style Hollywood often mistook for depth—but instead adds casual, comic ebullience to scenes so that the audience isn’t tipped off to expect failure early on.

But back to the flaw: the script mishandles the character transformations, and the movie perhaps overemphasizes this theme and becomes more of a position paper than an adventure story. The theme—of a seed of barely suppressed greed slowly sprouting deep within a character’s psyche, nourished by the desolate environment—strikes me as too insistent. Instead of the measured, insidious spread of greed across the picture, Huston and the script give us brief exchanges of dialogue in which one man says something reasonably “innocent” but is immediately misconstrued by his partner, whose face scrunches up with too-sudden animosity. You know what the movie is trying to dramatize, obviously, but you see the grinding mechanics of overinsistent dialogue spoil the believability of the effect, which not even a John Huston at the top of his game can make fully convincing. 

One other, very minor, flaw is the bandit attack on the train. The action inside the railroad car seems unsteady, not timed quite right—the rhythm a little off. It’s a shoot-’em-up that looks under-rehearsed. I couldn’t help thinking that John Ford would have aced the scene.

Character disintegration. Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston
The story goes that the original scene of Dobbs’s death was much more graphic than what the censors allowed in the movie—that Huston filmed the decapitation and you saw the murdered man’s head roll into a muddy watering hole. I wish that recent restorations of the film for home video would restore that scene because, knowing Huston, it was probably a macabre, witty comment on the greed theme of Dobbs losing his head.

These flaws are quibbles. To paraphrase perhaps the movie’s clearest-eyed fan, James Agee, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is bursting with energy and intelligence and talent. The performances—even the minor performances, like the barber (who snips and trims with panache and self-satisfaction at his grooming skill while toweling Dobbs’s face)—benefit from Huston’s economy and clear eye. Part of an effective screen performance is where the camera is situated, and Huston and his cameraman, Ted D. McCord, keep the camera where it belongs; the best adventure movies of the era excelled at action sequences, not exchanges of dialogue, but Sierra Madre is equally great at both. The camera angle, slightly askew and off to one side in closeup, adds both lyricism and naturalism to the exchange between Walter Huston and Jack Holt in the flophouse. In scene after scene, the action unfolds beautifully, and inspiration is abundant everywhere, from the jig that Howard dances in front of a disbelieving Dobbs and Curtin to the terrifically tense interactions with James Cody (Bruce Bennett) and the bandit honcho Gold Hat (Alfonso Bedoya), whose grotesquely grinning face and crooked teeth have become one of the iconic images in movie history. Bedoya and his idiot posse unknowingly dump the gold all over the desert floor, but they’re abundant providers of many of Sierra Madre’s truest, most lasting riches.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Revolutionary

I don’t think it’s being talked about much, but Shadow, by the major Chinese director Zhang Yimou and released in 2019, is a spectacular advance in film art. I hope that audiences for the film were breathless and dazed at what they saw. Movie audiences for the epics of Griffith and Gance, seeing film grammar for the first time—crosscutting, narrative discontinuity, tracking, framing, flood lighting (the technique that Griffith and other artists used of throwing beams of colored light from the wings)—must have felt a similar sense of wonder, witnessing a young art form take shape in the work of movie pioneers. The greatest thing a director can do in a mass-market industry like the movies is to excite you all over again with the limitless possibilities of the medium.

I’ve never seen a film lighted as uncannily as Shadow. I don’t know how Yimou and his cinematographer (Zhao Xiaoding) and art director (Ma Kwong-Wing) did it. The only way I can describe the production design is “chthonian.” Much of the film takes place in a hidden cavern, where you wouldn’t expect any dominant light source. But refracted light undulates across the screen in a preternatural play of not-quite-color. In fact, you’re never quite sure whether you’re seeing the story in chromatic color or grayscale—it’s like seeing some newly invented achromatic palette—what some people think they see in dreams, perhaps. Otherworldly lighting is photographed through billowing gowns and translucent scrolls (on which the jagged shapes of Chinese orthography unfurl). This lighting is obviously painstakingly planned and must have been headachy to produce, but the movie blessedly doesn’t give you the impression of watching mind-numbing computer-generated graphics (CGI is what keeps a movie from being a classic, based on the evidence so far). Images breathe and float across your view with fairytale loveliness, beads of rainwater on skin quiver as if alive, and everyday objects are rendered in ebony and ecru and washed-out lime.

Beyond color. Deng Chao and Sun Li
















The palette has no visible primary colors, except blood, which turns murky and opaque when it mixes with rainwater. The effect isn’t anything like a traditional black and white; it’s elegantly desaturated and, finally, revolutionary. We’re so used to standard color palettes, including the saturated hues of Technicolor or the angular chiaroscuro of noir, that this matte-like lambency seems to create a new physical law of depth perception. The creamy radiance and indiscernible sources of moving light make you feel weightless.

Aside from its art design, the film has an abundance of atavistic images that recall the work of Mizoguchi, with scenes of energy that burst forth with the strength and poetry of Kurosawa. In fact, you’re reminded of a number of past masters of Asian cinema, and the overall effect is that of a student having learned the important things from his spiritual teachers and who now proudly and justifiably speaks with an unforgettable personal voice.