Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Doll / Die Puppe (Ernst Lubitsch, 1919

A wry fairy tale reversing the usual polarities of the courtship saga, The Doll plays with the boundaries between puppetshow illusion and reality. It begins with Lubitsch himself on stage, unpacking a decorated box to assemble the opening set.
As soon as the set is complete, the painted door opens and two characters emerge: young Lancelot (Hermann Thinig) and his nanny.
Some slapstick ensues--Lancelot loses his balance and slides down the path directly into a pond, and flails about until his nanny fishes him out with her umbrella. He is comically immature, pouting and dripping, exaggeratedly unhappy until the sun comes out and dries him off, at which point he stands up, beaming, as steam billows from his drying clothes. Lancelot's uncle, the Baron von Chanterelle (Max Kronert) decrees that he must marry to ensure that the royal line continues, and poor Lancelot is stricken with terror by the news.
He leaps out the castle window and runs through the town, pursued by forty women who have come to present themselves as candidates. There ensues a long chase scene winding through different exits and entrances of the same set, much like stage farces.
But Lancelot eludes them and takes refuge in a monastery that happens to be populated by not very holy monks, much given to eating and drinking, with little evidence of prayer.

The monks, whose manner of living is threatened by dwindling funds, concoct a clever plan. The Baron has offered a dowry of 30,000 marks if Lancelot returns with a wife. Lancelot refuses to marry a real woman, but one of the monks discovers a newspaper advertisement for special dolls:
"You don't need to marry a real woman," they tell him, and convince him to obtain a doll from the great doll-maker Hilarius (Victor Janson), pretend to marry her, and return to the safety of the monastery with plentiful funds for the good life. Lancelot agrees and proceeds to the shop of the puppet-master Hilarius  just as he and his apprentice (Gerhard Ritterband) are putting the finishing touches on a doll modeled after his beautiful daughter Ossi (Ossi Oswalda).
While Hilarius welcomes his new customer, the apprentice--a merry young fellow with most of the good lines in the movie--dances with the doll and accidentally breaks her. Ossi, a young woman of considerable spirit, volunteers to pretend to be the doll until the apprentice can repair it. And, inevitably, Lancelot purchases her and drives off with her in his carriage, drawn by two stage horses (i.e., four men in two horse costumes).
Meanwhile at the castle, the poor Baron has fallen ill. Greedy courtiers surround his sickbed squabbling about who will inherit what precious bits and pieces. Lubitsch brilliantly parodies greed with extreme close-ups of their venal, grimacing, chattering mouths,
But everything changes with the arrival of the bride and groom. Much hilarity ensues as the supposedly mechanical doll--the real Ossi--lapses into humanity with flashing eyes, laughter, surreptitious consumption of wedding cake and wine, and dancing.
Though Lancelot is repeatedly startled, executing classic double-takes and eye-widenings, he doesn't quite comprehend. Meanwhile, Hilarius discovers the substitution; the apprentice delivers "the confession of a broken man." Hilarius boxes his ears, and not for the first time.
 After the ball is over, Lancelot takes Ossi with him to the monastery, where, after a brief interlude in which Ossi, still pretending to be a mechanical doll, lures the monks into a jolly dance, she is supposed to be stowed in the junk room. She escapes and hides in Lancelot's room; he playfully hangs his hat and coat on her; she indignantly throws them back at him. And when he sleeps, he dreams of Ossi. She wakes him with a kiss, and he struggles to comprehend that she's a real girl, not a doll. At last he gives up and falls into her arms, smiling.
The same night, in despair over Ossi's vanishing, poor Hilarius, whose wonderful triply-pointed hair has turned white, is sleepwalking. The apprentice considers whether he should have his revenge by waking his master so he would fall, but relents because he is a family man. And the next day the apprentice saves his master a second time when the balloons Hilarius has taken to help him move quickly across the city carry him too high. The boy shoots the balloons with a sentry's rifle, and Hilarius lands on a park bench between Lancelot and Ossi, they show him their wedding license, and her father's hair turns black again with joy.

In many ways, The Doll is a classic farce, complete with exaggerated characters, crossed plot-lines, silly visual tricks, and a romantic happily-ever-after ending. Three things elevate it above the common farce: first, the slippery shifting from puppet-show unreality--the men in horse costume, the painted sets, the two-dimensional kitchen implements painted on the wall--to real action. Second, the story is greatly enlivened by the presence of the apprentice, with his grandiose language, his mimicry of his master, and his affection for Ossi and her simulacrum. And third, the reversal of gender roles--the timid man afraid of life accidentally meeting the bold and life-loving woman who teaches him how to find happiness, even with a real woman.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Yidl Mitn Fidl (Joseph Green & Jan Nowina-Przybyski, 1936)

Molly Picon
A film starring the New-York-born Yiddish theatre star Molly Picon as a girl in Jewish Poland who goes out on the road with her grandfather to earn a living playing music. For the sake of safety and propriety, she dresses as a boy, with predictable results: she falls in love with the other fiddler, Froim (Leon Leibgold), who of course is incapable of seeing Yidl, no matter how wonderfully she (he) plays. Though the cross-dressing disguise theme is conventional enough in stage-plays in many traditions--think Shakespeare's As You Like It and Twelfth Night, for instance--it usually works better on stage than on film. Picon's disguise as a boy is not especially convincing,
and the disguise plot is predictable and somewhat silly. She falls in love with the other fiddler, Froim (Leon Leibgold), who of course is incapable of seeing Yidl, no matter how wonderfully she (he) plays. Even when he rescues Yidl from a swiftly-flowing river he doesn't realize he's carrying an adoring, wet-clothed young woman in his arms.

This is because Froym's attentions are directed elsewhere, at the singer Taubele (Dora Fakiel), who is lovely and rather nice. Then she is discovered by producers who quickly make her a star--but she doesn't care for the limelight and just before the curtain rises for a performance chooses true love over stardom.

So, in an interesting twist on the understudy plot--the reverse of the story where the scheming newcomer viciously supplants the star who nourished her--Yidl takes the stage. There Picon’s charm is manifest as she insists she’s not a boy and pleads with the audience not to laugh.

Importantly, the film captures something of the tone of an eastern-European folk-tale, but the screenplay was developed by the Yiddish theatre actor, Joseph Green (Yoysef Grinberg), a Jewish emigré from Poland, who had acted in several films including The Jazz Singer) and made four Yiddish movies in the 1930s. The music isn't really traditional klezmer, but the work of composer Abraham Ellstein (composer in the Yiddish theater) with lyrics by the poet Itsik Manger. There's a clip of one song on YouTube here.  Another fine feature of the movie is the way the film captured the disappeared world of pre-holocaust Poland, not so much the countryside and the shtetl but urban Jewish markets and communities.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Zvenigora (Aleksandr Dovzhenko, 1928)

So avant-garde in its narrative structure it is almost incomprehensible, and yet Zvenigora is still impressive. The cinematography is adventurous and strong, lots of montage and quick cutting and then long shots of men on horseback. A thread runs through the fragmented story: an ancient Ukrainian grandfather who is concerned with protecting his country’s hidden treasure--what exactly the treasure might be is never very clear--over a vast extent of time and against a variety of would-be treasure-hunters, invading Poles, ancient Vikings (who cursed the treasure and the beauteous Oksana, who in some way that also isn’t very clear at all first welcomed and then dispatched the invaders), and Cossack bandits. Or are the bandits on the right side? And then invading Germans, and the expatriate aristocrats after the Revolution.
Ultimately it becomes clear that the real treasure is the people, the land, and the traditions of Ukraine, a lesson the Grandfather himself only learns after he attempts to blow up a Red train at the behest of a cynical and machiavellian Ukranian “Duke.” To his surprise, the old man is taken in and fed by the hearty Red workers and soldiers. Along the way we see both outright propaganda and warm, visual celebration of Dovshenko's treasure, the faces of the people, soldiers shaking hands with enemy soldiers who (apparently) are brother workers, and refusing to execute their brave companions. In contrast, we see the decadent sensation-craving bourgeois of the west, at its nadir a nasty crowd clamouring to witness a staged suicide. We see fields and forests, grain, factories, trains, bulldozers, and people working hard for their nation. The movie is rough and puzzling and xenophobic, and still it's sometimes beautiful.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Devdas (Sanjay Leela Bhansali, 2002)

An extravagant, gigantic-budgeted Bollywood epic, with every possible richness of décor and costume. Indeed, the palatial homes of the two neigbouring families, the rich Mukherjis—their son is Devdas (Sharukh Khan)—and the now-wealthy but once theatrical next-door neigbours—their daughter is Parvati (Aishwarya Rai). Their homes are vast, opulent in a vulgar manner, westernized with neoclassical columns and painted ironwork and stained-glass and fountains and chandeliers and patterned marble floors. Everything is just a little too much. But the vulgar excess of material fantasy doesn’t ruin the film. It’s a three-hour romantic tragedy, the two childhood sweethearts separated by the Mukherji’s snobbery—and by Dev’s weakness, for he doesn’t simply take Paro and leave.

The story unwinds in a slow, inexorable decline. Cast out by his family and failing in his attempt to forget Paro as he’s told her he’s already done, Dev wanders aimlessly until a jovial friend brings him to the famous courtesan Chandramukhi (Madhuri Dixit). There he watches her dance, learns to drink, and treats her with contempt. Still, she loves him, and watches his slide into alcoholism helplessly. Meanwhile Paro is married to a very wealthy widower, a man devoted to the memory of his late wife, and he will not consummate the marriage. And a scheming sister-in-law alienates Dev’s family from him, and he is doubly cast out. He comes home to die at her gate—and Paro’s husband locks the gate so they are separated even as he dies.

It would be less surprising if all this did not work. But it does, so
mehow. The story is buoyed up by spectacle, especially the wonderful songs and the dancing scenes, and by the ability to show joy and long-lasting grief shared by Rai and Khan, and by Dixit as well. Enriching the plot, which is more than a little analogous to the premise of Romeo and Juliet, is a strong thematic undercurrent referring to the love of Krishna and Radha. This theme is reinforced by several of the songs, which tell of the ecstasy of their union and of the loneliness and longing of Radha in Krishna’s absence. There is an implicit gulf between the absolute demand of love (as figured in the Radha-Krishna story) and the cruel vanity of the parents in daily practice. The same gulf appears in the enactment of a Durga Puja, when the arrogance of the wealthy family Paro has married into runs against the implicit meaning of the ritual. And so it is deeply and grievously ironic that Paro, Dev, and Chandramukhi suffer such agonies because they love, when all around them friends, family, and strangers all celebrate the love of Radha and Krishna. Devdas—his name means “servant of the gods,” dies for love. It wasn’t the gods who killed him—it was human intolerance. The music, again, is wonderful, and the three main actors always worth watching. But it's sad, very sad.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Meet John Doe (Frank Capra, 1941)

Sometimes after watching a movie—or even while watching—it's hard to resist the temptation to admit the truth of the cliché that there are only a few plots. Here again it’s the intensely smart, independent, brassy woman exploiting the simple, good, tall man.

This time it’s Barbara Stanwyck who’s leading Gary Cooper on; she’s a newspaper-woman (yes, again) with a great headline grabbing story. She's dreamed up a populist Everyman to give voice to her ideas—and her father’s ideas—about simple decency in hard times--it's a Great Depression story. Her character, Ann Mitchell, is losing her job because she's too mild-mannered, so she fires off a piece of fiery writing, supposedly a letter from an anonymous man out of work, out of luck, and without any hope or confidence in society or big business. Her invented "John Doe" announces he's going to jump off the tallest building in town on Christmas Eve. The piece provokes an uproar, saving Ann's job, but now the people want to know more--so she hires a likely prospect to pay the part. Uh-oh!

As it happens, Long John Willoughby (Cooper), an out-of-work minor-league pitcher
chosen to play the part, really is a decent guy at least as sympathetic and, well, noble, as the one Ann invented. Inevitably she falls in love with him at the same time as her position gets more and more compromised, so that in the end she can only operate on emotion, not intellect. It's as if Capra imagined some sort of universal power that operates on smart women to reign them in, requiring them to become less voluble and peppery and daring , and then to become more “womanly.” Perhaps this is unfair, since falling in love transforms Long John, too, first making him act against his conscience and then making him risk everything to do the right thing.

Stanwyck is most compelling when she’s talking, and talking fast, with strong traces of Brooklyn still uncontrolled in her vowels. She’s not quite as pretty as some other comedic heroines, but she is very engaging in the speed of her talk, and the crispness of her movements, and her eyes are smart. I found this quotation somewhere online: “Eyes are the greatest tool in film. Mr Capra taught me that. Sure it’s nice to say very good dialogue, if you can get it. But great movie acting – watch the eyes!” Cooper, too, has good eyes, and a remarkably expressive face, which Capra uses to good effect with close-ups: dignified, sad, bleak, amused, desperate. He’s tall and rangy and surrounded.

The story of Meet John Doe is a populist confection for wartime—the newspaper story becomes a campaign against the ills of contemporary society (graft, corrupt government, callous big business, the tendency to dislike one’s neighbours), in short, a vague nod in the direction of treating people decently. Capra cuts between scenes with the principals and short scenes in which ordinary people in the street react to the John Doe story. Even though some of them are cynical and others panicky, they have an innate sense of right and wrong--so that even if they are misled by demagoguery, they can make it back safely to their real values.

The film opens with a workman using a jackhammer to remove the stone inscription about freedom of the press from the front of a newspaper building, replacing it with a big new ownership sign, and then everybody inside gets fired. The new owner, D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold), is a large, calm tycoon with a rich, attractive voice—the contrast between his assured calm and Stanwyck’s rapid-fire delivery is cleverly handled. Norton, however, is a fascist, and exploits the John Doe movement, then tries to destroy it when Long John refuses to help him become the next (right-wing) president. The people, though they’re temporarily swayed by Norton’s attack on Doe, come back to his values, and fascism is stopped.

There are some great character actors, most notably Walter Brennan as John’s hobo sidekick, the Colonel, Irving Bacon as the innocent clumsy gofer, and Warren Hymer as Angelface, the eternal wiseacre gangster-bodyguard. And there are wonderfully dotty sequences, especially the pretend baseball game in the hotel room, in which everybody is totally engaged. By mixing in screwball routines with a more serious story, Capra manages to keep the brush with disaster compelling and the return to ordinary life uplifting and sweet. With Capra, it's just when he seems not to be taking things seriously that the true serious heart of his work emerges.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford, 1939)

How do we make and then remake our heroes? That’s a topic for another discussion, but the many versions of Abraham Lincoln devised by historians, novelists, poets, painters, and film-makers are fascinating in their diversity. Each one is constructed to address something in what has come to be called the “American character,” and Lincoln, apparently, serves as the sort of culture hero who embodies the best of what we would like to be true about our potential. In this case, John Ford fixes on Lincoln’s formative years, but of course he meant to project what Lincoln became by showing his qualities already strong at an early aged. Somehow Henry Fonda manages to pull off a decent impersonation of Lincoln as a young man, shy and tall and shambling and given to feats of strength and wit and storytelling.

Most of the plot is g
iven over to what is supposed to be one of Lincoln’s first trials as a lawyer. He pulls off a coup, freeing two innocent young men and pinning the crime on an obnoxious sheriff’s deputy. Along the way there are some proleptic bits, like Lincoln twanging “Dixie” on his mouth-harp, and a walk to the top of a hill as thunder booms nearby, suggesting battlefields of the future. Mary Todd shows up, too, as does Stephen Douglass, but their part in the story is not taken up. There’s a lot of the old-timey music, some good, and some (refurbished and diluted with lame 1930s style orchestral scoring) not so much.

Ford is interested in American epic; here he represents Lincoln as a force of nature, a man made for his time, all wrapped up in a gangling, long-legged, craggy, folkloric, back-country lawyer with a strong attraction to justice. Meanwhile, Fond
a looks Lincolnesque partly because of the lofty haircut, some nose adjustment, a mole, and something that makes his eyebrows prominent, cheeks hollow, and to this he adds a drawl and a bit of sprawlingly lazy movement. His best lines sound casual and off-hand, fitting the notion of the man of the people anti-sophisticate. All in all, it’s a pleasant exercise, more iconic than profound.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Baabul (Ravi Chopra, 2006)

Another Bollywood contemporary fantasy, beautifully filmed and featuring some excellent music and some interesting ideas. But at first in some ways the movie seems overlarge, with palatial homes, ultramodern offices, and the pageantry of the materially successful. It is hard to be sure what the significance may be of such expansive wealth, obviously meant to be significant in some way. Several possible answers occur to me. First, the assumption may be that there is nothing wrong with wealth itself, especially wealth earned by ingenuity and hard work. Second, the display of entrepreneurial success—the Kapoors run an internationally prosperous jewelry firm—may be seen as an upbeat affirmation of the possibility of thriving in India. Third, Bollywood long ago took a hint from Hollywood, recognizing that in hard times glamour is especially attractive—witness the spate of movies made about wealthy, glamorous people during the depression. And fourth, Bollywood may well be furnishing their audiences with the comforting notion that the wealthy have personal troubles just like the rest of us ordinary mortals.

In Baabul there are
several plots, and the merry love story of the first half nearly obscures them, though key themes are signalled carefully from time to time. The primary plot is simple enough: young Avinash Kapoor (Salman Khan) returns to India after seven years in America. His parents, Balraj and Shobhna Kapoor (Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini) meet him at the airport. Young Avi is exceedingly handsome and high-spirited, brisk and headstrong and playful in the “American” way. He and his father call each other “Buddy.” This is supposed to indicate good-natured teasing intimacy, and for the most part it works, though largely because Bachchan holds back a little to let Khan run with the part. Right outside the airport the games begin: the father gives the son a fast car, suggests a race, and wins with the help of an amusing bit of cheating. Jokes abound, in the luxurious office, at home, and on the golf course. There Balraj’s ball hits the canvas of a young painter, Malvika, known as “Mini” (Rani Mukherji). Balraj is thickheadedly insulting, but Avi is drawn to the pretty girl. He follows her, pretends he is not wealthy—for she has an aversion to arrogant, selfish rich folk. Their courtship blooms, and is only momentarily set back when she discovers Avi was lying. Balraj follows Mini as she leaves in tears and negotiates a settlement, and they are married with much pageantry. A young man who grew up with Mini, the singer Rajat (John Abraham) gives her away. His rueful smile declares he’s in love with Mini, too. The wedding meets with the approval of the head of the Kapoor family, the dictatorial Balwant (Om Puri), except for one thing. Balraj insists that Pushpa, a widow living with Balwant’s family, should attend the wedding. This goes against tradition and is inauspicious, and Balwant is angry.

Years pass, a cute boy with overlarge glasses is born, and Avi and Mini live happily in the Kapoor household, though work keeps him away a little too much. Hurrying home to the son’s birthday party, Avi jumps out of his taxi and threads his way through traffic, and a taxi hurtles into view, killing him at his doorstep. The entire tone of the movie shifts, and sadness overtakes it. Here Mukherjee comes into her own as an actor. In the early scenes of the movie she wears western clothes and acts sparky and self-willed, matching Khan’s westernized playfulness. But as sorrow overtakes her she begins to glow with a tragic light, and she is much more convincing and much more beautiful. For a long time Balraj, her late husband’s father, watches her with sad eyes. It turns out that Avi’s parents have really accepted Mini as their daughter, and Balraj especially is worried that she is wasting away. She weeps out in the rain, and she appears to get more and more fragile. So Balraj travels to the west to find her friend Rajat, begging him to come home for Mini needs him. He does, and she is happy to see him, but she is hurt by the way Balraj, whom she loves as a father, has thrown them together as if he wanted to be rid of her. Her reproach is very sad indeed.

Though the obstacles are great, after some time Mini is moved to accept Rajat, and wedding preparations begin. But the older brother arrives and forbids the wedding, shouting about the dishonor to the family of allowing a widowed daughter to marry again. He and his sons threaten Balraj and his family, and Mini offers to retreat upstairs so the wedding can be called off. But then Balraj steps forward and quietly defies the commands of his elder brother. There is a brief exchange of arguments, and then Balraj speaks with quiet intensity about the cruelty of this tradition. Mini is his daughter, and for a father to deprive a beloved daughter of a chance at happiness is unthinkable. The old custom of confining widows in the prison of the family is pointlessly cruel, for their lives do not end with the death of their husbands. Indeed, he insists, though the custom of burning widows on their husbands’ pyre is no longer acceptable, the imprisonment of widows is just another kind of suttee. He apologizes to Pushpa for saying nothing all the years when she was deprived of a chance at happiness. Everyone is struck with admiration and everyone weeps and the head of the family praises his younger brother’s good heart and his wisdom. The wedding goes forward, and the movie ends with a quiet close-up of Bachchan, serious and kind and alone. His acting is quietly impressive. He is still capable of monkey business (see his comic turn in an early dance scene) and he still has the impish smile, but in the serious parts of the movie he holds still, and keeps his expression under control. This reserve pays off in the scene when he speaks up for what he knows is right, with a soft-spoken but passionate eloquence.

A cynical view of Baabul might suggest it has everything: riches, pretty people, music, dancing, comic figures, jokes, tragedy, a cute kid, and a socially conscious message to lend it some gravitas. I don’t care. I like the omnium-gatherum way it is put together.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Paprika (Satoshi Kon, 2006)

This movie is beautiful and full of surprises. Another example of the outstanding animation of Japanese studios, this one has a very current plotline: some people have created computer equipment that monitors dreams, and it’s being used experimentally for psychiatric purposes. But there are unintended consequences: the borderline between the dream world and reality is severely weakened. The cast is small: there’s Detective Kogawa, undergoing dream analysis with the sparky, red-haired Paprika; the research team of Chiba Atsuko, the fat genius inventor Tokita, the tiny balding supervisor, the vanished associate Himuro, the handsome young associate jealous of Tokita and infatuated with Chiba, and the gaunt, wheelchair-bound boss. Something is going wrong in the dream-level—somebody is taking over, and it’s not clear who.

The disturbance is manifested by a circus-like parade marching out of the dreamworld. The parade seems to merge into the dreams of random others, and the victims in the real world smilingly speaking amusingly absurd gibberish. All through these dreams, and investigations by Dr. Chiba, a little red-clothed doll recurs, sometimes with a face morphing into Himuro's face. Misdirections abound, but at last the villain of the piece is identified, and he is stopped just in time. But the leakage of the dream world has grown exponentially and the villain is in the process of destroying everything—one of the best effects in the movie is the way dreamscape locations start to shake and wobble and slip downward into a black-hole vortex. At the climax the entire real-world city is dissolving and sliding into the darkness surrounding the villain.

The dream-mad circus parade, full of colour and blue butterflies and frogs and confetti in the air and crowds of toys and surrealistic hybrids of refrigerators and humans and animals, people morphing into televisions, and ominously cheerful music—this is brilliantly conceived and executed.

Detective Kogawa has a recurring dream about a film noir memory, in which he arrives at a crime scene too late to save a murder victim. Sometimes he’s in a circus that starts out happy and then drifts into menace. His dream analysis takes place in a nightclub accessible through the internet, where Paprika comes to talk, and where two neat bartenders preside--and they later enter the world like elemental spirits to help defeat the villain.

Paprika is a virtual being, apparently projection of the beautiful Dr. Chiba in the virtual reality within the dream computers. We see her in reflections, sometimes talking to Chiba out of the mirror, but she has an existence beyond this function, and as the dream world and the real world start to merge, we see Paprika and Chiba together in the same scene.
A brilliant aspect of the movie is the slippage between media images, reflections, real-world, dream-world, imaginings, and explanations. In the opening scene, Paprika runs through the city, appearing on the crowded street, in billboards, reflections in shop windows and rain puddles, on a picture silkscreened on a t-shirt, on television monitors, and so forth. She’s intrepid and fast and ingenious and kindly and serious about helping people understand their dreams, and then later about healing the broken dream world. Science without compassion almost destroys the world; science with love saves it. The soundtrack is also great, especially the strange and cheerfully spooky parade music.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

W.R. - Misterije organizma - Mysteries of the Organism (Dusan Makavejev, 1971)

Not for the faint of heart, this polemical documentary approaches its subject—the relation of sociopolitical structures to human sexuality and psychology—from every possible direction, often randomly and sometimes with absurdist discontinuity. The director prefaces the film with these words (in the English language version): “This film is, in part, a personal response to the life and teachings of Dr. Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957).” The first section of the movie alternates between documentary footage and interviews about Reich, his theories, and the state suppression in the U.S. of his books and ideas. Basically, he argued that the orgasm involved a transfer of energy that was not only pleasurable but necessary for psychological as well as physical health, and he taught that the involvement of society at large or government in regulation of sexuality results in totalitarianism and widespread unhappiness. Reich’s larger theories were soundly repudiated by the majority of psychologists and federal agencies, principally because they involved untested physiological notions and questionable therapeutic practices—the film seems to recognize this at the same time that it portrays the closing down of the Organon movement as a witch-hunt. Later the film shows other physical-psychological regimens—primal scream therapy—that seem pretty much on the same level as the Reichian exercises.

Then the movie begins to add more and more ingredients, including material from the sexual freedom movement of the late 1960s—a ruby-tinted prismatic scene of a bearded young man and a long-haired young woman making love outdoors, interviews with masturbation advocate Betty Dodson, a visit to the office of Screw Magazine, interviews with a glitter-bedecked young transexual, a practical demonstration of the methodology of the Plastercasters, who take molds of erect penises, and so forth. This is mixed with the absurdist political theatre of the period, notably, Tuli Kupferberg prowling around New York wearing a fake military outfit while the Fugs sing “Kill for Peace” in the background.

And all this is connected, somehow, to an exaggerated dramatization of the political-sexual struggle in communist Yugoslavia, where two attractive young women, room-mates, address the stirring question—what is revolution without joy?—each in their own way, the brunette by making love with men, the blonde by lecturing her fellow-workers on the counter-revolutionary nature of sexual repression. She is attracted to a Russian figure skater, a Hero Artist, and tries to join with him in an ideal revolutionary act of making love. He's self-absorbed and creepy, and afterwards he kills her, but she doesn’t seem to mind, singing along with him and smiling from the autopsy table where her severed head has been placed. All through these episodes contrasting fragments of film are intercut, including official Soviet footage and reverential depictions of Stalin, exemplifying the propaganda of totalitarian rule, and then shots of Soviet shock treatments while the glowing words of revolution go on in the soundtrack, to random snippets of western materials. The film ends with a mournful song sung by the hero-murderer, and somehow the tone of the movie has shifted from its earlier stages—curiosity, defiance, joy, anger—to an elegiac mood.

It’s sad that we’ve still learned so little. It strikes me that this movie needs footnotes more than most. It’s dated, firmly stuck in 60s anti-establishment culture. This is both its strength and, because so much happens that depends on allusion and time-bound references, modern audiences just won’t get it.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Dubarry Was a Lady (Roy Del Ruth, 1943)

No ifs, ands, or buts. This is a bad movie, and it was probably a bad Broadway show in 1939 before it became a bad movie. You may ask, how could it be bad with the cast found wandering through the movie? After all, there’s Gene Kelly, and Lucille Ball, and Red Skelton, and Virginia O’Brien, and Donald Meek, and Rags Ragland, and even Zero Mostel. Well, I’ll tell you. The storyline, such as it is, serves merely as a string on which some song and dance numbers are threaded. At the outset, the movie doesn’t give much warning of impending mediocrity—a handsome woman in satin descends the sort of huge glittery staircase found only in the sort of imaginary nightclubs found in movies made from musical shows. She’s followed by a symmetrical gang of leggy women also in satin, and they are all singing and dancing to the inane title song. They outnumber the audience in the club by a factor of three to one; it’s a very exclusive nightclub.

The satiny chanteuse is May Daly (Lucille Ball). She is courted by a talented but impecunious singer/dancer/composer, Alec Howe (Gene Kelly), but she’s too brittle to marry him for love when what she really wants is to marry money. The hat-check guy Louis Blore (Red Skelton) worships her from afar and fails to notice the lovelorn but wisecracking Ginny (Virginia O’Brien) who is entirely, and inexplicably, smitten by him—she also has a pretty good musical number of her own.

There are a few other ringers brought in to upgrade the funniness, viz., Zero Mostel as “Rami the Swami,” Rags Ragland as Charlie, a cheerful lunatic with a foreign accent from no country in particular. Music by Tommy Dorsey. Add a bevy of calendar girls. If you blink you will miss tiny uncredited cameo appearances by Ava Gardner and Lana Turner.

When Louis wins a fortune in the Irish Sweepstakes, he buys a car and plans to marry May; she assents, strictly on business terms. A plan to put Louis’ rival Alec to sleep backfires, and Louis drifts into unconscious, where he becomes Louis XV, le roi de France, Ball is translated into Dubarry, and Kelly is the “Black Arrow.” Even the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra wears 18th-century costumes, and they look better that way. Mr. Dorsey himself sports his usual hornrimmed glasses under the powdered wig, also a satin suit with short trousers, hose, and high-heeled shoes with a silver buckle. And there were some bizarre moments—Buddy Rich at the drumset in full ancien regime regalia. Still, good drumming, some good trumpet work by Ziggy Elman, musical impersonations by the Oxford Boys, and some nice vocal moments with the Pied Pied Pipers (including Jo Stafford). Okay.

Well, Gene Kelly played the same part in a great many films, and he could have done this one in his sleep. No, he didn’t; he seems just as alert as always. Still, he has an open, enthusiastic, boyish face, and he certainly can dance. Red Skelton was a mugger, a rubber-faced clown, but here he seems relative subdued; in his later career on television he always went over the top—a master of crude, broad comedy. Hyuck hyuck, as it were. And though there are a good many people who might think Lucille Ball could have saved this, well, no, she couldn’t, for two reasons. First, in 1943 she was too busy being beautiful to waste time being funny. Here she is just as nearly blonde as red-headed, statuesque, with star glamour and frocks by “Irene,” and all that. It’s the sort of part many women of her day could play, and did, just as well or better. It’s a cookie-cutter role. Second, I may well be in the minority here, but quite frankly I have never been very much inclined to think she’s funny when she’s trying to be a comedian. Perhaps it’s because I grew up without a television and was not exposed during formative years and failed to form an addiction, or develop a tolerance, or whatever it is that one must go through to ach
ieve the infeebled state of those who think Lucy is the funniest thing since somebody fell down and went boom. I admit my disbelief is not strictly relevant, since she’s not funny in this movie either—but I must acknowledge that she wasn’t supposed to be. So, regretfully, I do not recommend this movie, unless you are one of those viewers who like to watch the character actors and the uncredited musicians. Otherwise, steer clear.