Sunday, August 31, 2008

À ma soeur! – Fat Girl (Catherine Breillat, 2001)

Not what it first appears to be, no, neither a sweet or a difficult coming of age story. Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) is a plump 12- or 13-year-old girl with a beautiful sister, Elena (Roxane Mesquida), just 15, with whom she alternately quarrels and gets along. Throughout the movie they talk about being dissimilar sisters, about how angry they get with each other and how close they are, about boys, about wanting and not wanting sex. They’re vacationing somewhere, and Elena picks up an Italian student, Fernando (Libero Do Rienzo), and the relationship soon heats up. Elena arranges for him to come to the bedroom she shares with her sister, whom she instructs to sleep and say nothing. Fernando spends the night trying to convince Elena to have sex with him, and though she feels desire, she’s timid. He keeps telling her intercourse is a great gift of love, and she asks him to give her time. He counters by telling her of the urgency of his need and telling her it would be too bad for him to have to go with a girl he didn’t care for because she turned him away. At last he convinces her to let him penetrate her anally—that way she can still say she’s a virgin; all the girls do it.

Meanwhile Anaïs, who has up to now been indicating her loneliness by singing odd little songs and playing out a fantasy romance monologue in the swimming pool, kissing the ladder and the jealous diving board, listens to the talk and the lovemaking and is confused, weeping, angry, defiant. The next day Elena and Fernando make love on the beach, with Anaïs nearby, singing to herself again—Elena can only go out in her sister’s company. Fernando gives Elena an opal ring—this brings trouble, for it’s a valuable ring belonging to his mother, who comes to complain. The girls’ father has flown home; he can’t stand to be away from his business. Their mother cuts the vacation short and drives them home. Anaïs and Elena talk—Anaïs says she’s tired of being a virgin. Weary with driving, the mother stops at a rest stop to sleep, as a big truck goes by slowly in the lot. More quiet talking, and the Elena too goes to sleep. Suddenly a man smashes the windshield with an axe and kills Elena with one swipe, and strangles the mother. Anaïs gets out of the car and just looks at him. In the woods, as he is raping her, she reaches her arms up and embraces him. In the morning, as the police examine the bodies and walk Anaïs out of the woods, she says calmly, he didn’t rape me.

A very disturbing movie, especially the last seven or eight minutes, but there’s also something really distressing about Fernando’s exploitation of Elena, an innocent girl, who thinks in terms of love, and in his complete disregard for her feelings or for her pleasure. Sex is for him only. All this allies him with the crazed killer, and makes the movie terribly bitter and sad.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Gentleman's Agreement (Elia Kazan, 1947)

A weightily well- intentioned movie that is sometimes quite effective. Laura Z. Hobson wrote the novel and Moss Hart the screen play, and the topic is antisemitism. The focus is not on horrid examples or recent world history, but on the pervasiveness of prejudice in ordinary American life. This is how the set-up goes: a very wealthy, successful, liberal magazine editor John Minify (Albert Dekker) gets the bright idea of commissioning a series of articles exposing American antisemitism, and calls star journalist Philip Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck) do it. Green is a serious man with a serious, creative career, and he accepts the assignment after admitting disgruntlement to his wise mother Mrs. Green (Anne Revere), but he hasn’t got an angle, and this makes him nervous and dissatisfied. But he has a good friend, Dave Goldman (John Garfield) who is a Jew, and thinking about his friend’s experience gives him his angle: he will be a Jew for Eight Weeks, to see how hateful antisemitism is, from the inside.

Everybody is bowled over by the brilliance of the idea, and he goes ahead. The first problem arises when he mentions to his new girlfriend Kathy (Dorothy McGuire) that he’s writing from within, as a Jew himself. Kathy gives a start: she’s very liberal, disgusted by prejudice, and in fact she was the one who persuaded her uncle Minify to take on antisemitism. But in her character we see one of the basic problems: people are inclined toward opposing prejudice, but they haven't gone farther than that. Kathy has all the right intentions, but accepts unthinkingly all the daily mechanics that enforce prejudice: resorts with an “exclusive” policy, managing guests at a Connecticut party, and so forth. When Green’s son Tommy (Dean Stockwell) suffers from name-calling and beating, she comforts him by telling him it’s not true, he’s not a Jew—as if his membership in the dominant Christian community were inherently better, a belief she reveals even more when in the break-up argument she says she’s glad she’s a Christian and not Jewish, just as she’s glad she’s pretty and not plain, wealthy and not poor, healthy and not ill.

Daily abuses abound: the custodian of the apartment building where Green lives asks him not to write “Greenberg” on the mail-box label “because it ain’t allowed.” The doctor who treats Mrs. Green recommends only gentile heart specialists, and the secretary Minify hires to help Green, Elaine Wales (June Havoc) is a prime example of the internalized antisemitism of those passing for gentile (though Green is a little too hard on her). Through her Green discovers the personnel manager at the magazine doesn’t hire Jews, and Minify, embarrassed, reverses the policy.

There are only two other Jewish voices here. The first is Green’s friend Dave, an army officer and engineer just leaving the service to take up a job in New York, though he can’t find a place for his family to live. Dave’s attitude is reserved, guarded, but not without compassion: as Green reels from the impact of hatred, Dave tells him he’s getting in two weeks what a real Jew would have a lifetime to absorb—and it’s hard enough that way. He also tells Green one story, and one story only, about the death on the battlefield of a heroic Jewish soldier. Somebody said something about moving “this Sheeny,” and those were the last words he ever heard. The other voice is that of a brilliant physicist, Professor Lieberman (Sam Jaffee), who launches into a wonderfully merry, sardonic riff on how to solve the problem of antisemitism. Green himself is caught in a moral bind, because he is too principled to retreat from the ugliness of confrontations by playing the gentile card, which is also Lieberman’s point when he says that as a completely secular man of science he is not a Jew—no religion, no race. But he will never deny being a Jew because to do so would be to proclaim Jewish inferiority. Green can only leave his disguise of being Jewish by denouncing every manifestation of antisemitism, even among “good people.”

Meanwhile, there’s another wrinkle in the plot. Kathy is pretty and bright and speaks with a breathily soft voice, but she’s really not very interesting except as part of a matched set of handsome people. On the other hand, fashion editor Anne Dettrey (Celeste Holme) is bright, determined, very good looking in a polished way, and extremely witty. In fact, she gets all the snappy lines, and a scene showing her deeper, sweeter side. But then the good-hearted Dave has to go and spoil things by effecting a last-minute reconciliation between Kathy and Green—it’s not enough for her to feel disgust at prejudice, she has to take action, he tells her. Otherwise she’s part of it. So she allows the Goldmans to live in her cottage in exclusive Connecticut and commits herself to staying with her sister and fighting prejudice. It is a great disappointment, this reconciliation, for Anne Dettrey is a decent person all through the story, and somebody of real substance, not just a pretty face with social status, much better suited for Green than the somewhat vacuous Kathy. The weakest part of the story is the romance plot. And while Gregory Peck is very good to look at, Kazan seems to have directed him in a way that limits him for much of the film to expressions of righteous indignation, so that he appears stern, angry, and tightly wound nearly all the time. The best acting and the best lines are delivered by the secondary characters, especially Revere and Garfield—and Garfield most of all, who delivers a surprisingly nuanced, quiet, convincing performance.

The conceit of the story—reporting on the conditions experienced by an oppressed minority, is not unique. John Howard Griffin wrote of becoming black in the 1960s exposé Black Like Me, and there must be other instances. I’m not sure whether we ought to be troubled by the notion that the story can be written better by an outsider, but that’s an argument for another day.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Xiao Wanyi (Yo Sun, 1933)

A silent epic, starting with traditional China in the 1920s, where a gifted woman, Ye (Lingyu Ruan) invents and makes toys. She has a circle of people in her village, her pudgy, slow husband who sells the toys, as does the scarecrow sidekick Mantis. In the opening scene her husband, daughter, and infant son tiptoe, and even the little dog wears felt booties, so she can sleep. Clearly Sister Ye is treasured—and she’s also admired by a rich, handsome man, Yuan Pu (Congmei Yuan), but she sends him away to learn how to manufacture things so China won’t keep buying imports. Over the years, things degenerate even though Sister Ye keeps making brilliant toys. Her husband falls down and dies in the market, and in the stir that ensues, somebody steals her young son and sells him to a woman in Shanghai. War comes and Sister Ye’s circle leave the village. They settle in Shanghai and continue to make toys, but their standard of living keeps falling. Sister Ye’s daughter Pearl (Li Li-li) grows up to be another toy-making genius, as well as an inspiring leader of children’s calisthenics. Yuan returns but can’t find Sister Ye; he builds the toy factory he’d promised her, and meets the woman who adopted Ye’s son—though nobody ever knows the connection. War gets far worse—the Japanese invade Manchuria, and there is much brutal destruction. Japanese planes bomb the hospital where Sister Ye and Pearl are helping, and Pearl dies in her mother’s arms. Finally Sister Ye is reduced to rags, selling a pole of toys outside a fancy night-club. Out of a limousine comes her son, dressed in the uniform of a boy scout, and she refuses to take money from him because he says he intends to grow up to save his country. Sister Ye smiles with tears in her eyes—and then the fireworks start going off and she cracks with the strain, running about screaming that war has come again. Yuan finds her and calms her a little, and she gradually works around to a profoundly patriotic speech, calling on everybody to serve, pointing at them, and pointing at the camera at the very end. The war-time propaganda starts about half-way through the movie, and escalates through Pearl’s cheerfully rousing patriotism to this final speech—from which (in the print I saw) both the Chinese intertitles and the English subtitles were missing, though plentiful earlier. I seem to have become a big fan of Lingyu Ruan, whose face I admire prodigiously—she’s really very beautiful, with a dazzling smile that transforms her face and her eyes into something very fine to behold. And she’s a very good actor as well, especially expressive. The movie harnesses tragedy to serve national interests: propaganda, perhaps, but still a warm human story.

Friday, August 8, 2008

All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone, 1930)

Perhaps one could call this the anti-epic, the tale of an ordinary German boy who joined the army in the first heat of idealism, only to watch his friends die, one after the other, for nothing. The professor who preaches honour and glory is a jingoistic fool, and the people at home want the army, underfed and undersupplied with every sort of necessity, to march on to Paris. Through more than two hours of the story—long, but not overlong—the film-makers, faithful to the original novel by Erich Marie Remarque, stress the effort to hold onto whatever it is that makes us human. This is not easy in the midst of a steady rain of death that renders all pre-war notions of sense meaningless and absurd. Disillusionment is epidemic, and in the face of a necessity that makes no sense—the war goes on—something else emerges. Cameraderie is paramount, the link that binds soldiers together in the face of death. Also the simple things, food, drink, dry clothing, sleep, and the dreamed-of things, home, love, and a coherent world—but in the grotesque absurdity of trench warfare, such dreams are hopelessly remote, and the war is near. The film is brilliantly acted by a very big cast. The central figure, Paul Bäumer, grows from a sensitive, romantic youth to a seasoned, disillusioned soldier; still, he retains a bit of his core of integrity—Lew Ayres is wonderful in this part. Over all, the movie produces a sense of painful recognition of waste, just like the great national cemeteries with their miles of crosses and gravestones. The final shot is a montage showing one of these graveyards seen from above, perhaps from the crest of a hill, and superimposed over this is a scene from early in the movie when the young recruits marched off to war in their clean,.new uniforms. As they pass, some of them—the main characters of the story, look back briefly over their shoulders directly into the camera, turn back, and march on toward death. Their faces are young and sober. It is one of the single most affecting shots I have ever seen, and perfectly holds this true masterpiece together.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

A Fool There Was (Frank Powell, 1915)

A melodrama featuring a Fool, wealthy diplomat John Schuyler (Edward José) who falls under the spell of a “woman of the vampire species” (Theda Bara), abandons his wife and yellow-ringleted daughter, sojourns dissolutely in Italy, stumbles back to New York, and dies a mere husk of a man. It is never clear just how the Vampire attracts and holds men—it must be sex and drink and perhaps some other unspecified unauthorized pleasures, because her victims seem both drunk and hypnotized and, in the end, suffering from something like alcoholic dementia.

Theda Bara is not especially glamorous here, at least not by our standards 90 years later, but the signals are right: she assumes the generally accepted body language of a harlot: hipshot, head thrust forward, and she moves aggressively on some occasions and sinuously at others. In the opening scene she stands draped in silk in a dark room, shredding a bouquet of roses and laughing. Moreover, throughout the film her costume is always powerfully different from the dress worn by other women. In an early scene she appears at a summer resort, where all the other women wear seasonally appropriate white or light-coloured clothing, loose-fitting, with soft lines. She wears a black and white vertically striped satin sheath skirt and a fitted black jacket, and a dark hat with a big feather, and her eyes are heavily shadowed. Schuyler’s wife “cuts” her, standing right next to her but not acknowledging her existence, and the Vampire swears revenge. Obviously her costume represents darkness contrasting with innocence, but the contrast hasn’t aged well, so she appears overdressed rather than exotic.

The concept of the movie comes from a Kipling poem, “The Vampire,” which appears in fragments in the intertitles. She is first and foremost the woman “who does not care,” and who attracts fools, uses them up, and discards them, laughing. Things do not end any better for Mr. Schuyler then they did for her previous victims.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Warm Water under a red bridge / Akai hashi no shita no nurui mizu (Shohei Imamura, 2001)

Without a job when his firm goes bankrupt, a man in his 40s looks unsuccessfully for work, talks on his mobile phone to his distant wife who’s moved away, and hangs out with a derelict, a homeless philosopher in a blue tent, who counsels him to live in such a way that he will not have regrets—and when the old man dies the man decides to go seek the treasure the old man used to tell him about, in an old house covered with trumpet vines, by a red bridge. The man goes there and sees a beautiful young woman. Shortly afterwards he sees her shoplifting cheese in a store; she is standing in a pool of water. He goes to the house, and the granny gives him a paper with a prophecy of good fortune written on it.

The girl tells him somehow water builds up inside her and she has to do something wicked to vent it. And when they make love she becomes an ecstatic fountain. So the man takes a job on a fishing boat, and he hurries back to her whenever she signals him from the shore with a mirror. After a while, though, the constancy of the relationship starts to “cure” her, and the water diminishes. The man is not happy, and he becomes unreasonable and jealous. The poor woman is miserably unhappy, too, because whenever she has taken a lover they have all have been that way when the water subsides. The fountain seems to be just exotic sex to them, while the water seems like a curse to her.

When the man confesses he’d initially come for the treasure, she laughs bitterly—the treasure was in her grandmother’s “pot.” At last, the man realizes the old philosopher had tricked him into discovering this wonder, and that he himself had been the man the grandmother had always waited for. The girl retreats sadly, accepting defeat and preparing herself for his departure. But he tells her he’s staying, and the she she tells him she loves him—and out of the seashore grotto where they are making love, a fountain of water emerges, and a rainbow.

It’s a fable about desire, isn’t it? But there’s more than just a succession of ebbing and endings. There's the promise of renewal and constancy. Sweetly optimistic magic realism.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Breathless / À Bout de souffle (Jean Luc Godard, 1960)

Jean-Paul Belmondo as an attractive criminal, Michel, with a fondness for Bogart. He drifts into crime rather casually, as when he casually shoots a policeman pursuing the car Michel has stolen—Michel just happens to find a gun in the glove compartment. He has a vague romantic attachment to the American girl Patricia (Jean Seberg), who is even vaguer still. She’s brisk and pretty in her close-cropped fair hair and sailor-striped shirt and her American-accented French. The famous “honesty” of this film must stem from the fact that both lovers speak a good deal about how uncertain they are about whether they love each other, though they do.

This is not at all a conventional crime drama, because there’s very little dash and bravado–just free-floating charm. And this charm is peculiar because it’s so ambivalent. In the end, Patricia turns Michel in to the police. Why? Apparently it is supposed a means of discovering if she really loves him. It’s complicated, but it works something like this: how can she know whether she really does love Michel? If she betrays him, the act of betrayal would be especially méchant, and if she feels sufficiently terrible she will know she loves him, and if not, well then. This means of testing love is complicated and sophisticated and poetic and more than any of these qualities, stupid. Michel disdains escape. He’s tired, he says, and wants to sleep, though perhaps not to die, and yet he does die. The police on the scene misrepresent his last words to Patricia, who looks frozen at the camera and turns away.

The movie is deceptively good to look at, which conceals the waywardness of its concept. And more puzzling still, I wish I knew what some critics (and the blurb on the dvd-box blurb) mean when they use the word “existentialist” about this film.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Champagne (Alfred Hitchcock, 1928)

This very early Hitchcock silent film is fascinating. Just before the crash of ’29, we have a moral fable about giddy youth in the jazz age. The movie opens with a most unusual shot—a young couple dancing vigorously (though blurrily) in the centre of a circle, and when the camera pulls back, it turns out we’ve been looking through the bottom of a champagne glass. The madcap flapper heiress Betty (Betty Balfour) — all curly blonde hair and big eyes and twinkly smiling is taken on board a Cunard steamer after she's ditched her small airplane in the sea. She’s done it on purpose, to elope with a handsome fellow known only as “The Boy” (Jean Bradin), but he offends her by saying he wishes she didn’t have so much money, and she spurns him. At the same time a rather ominous looking fellow, “The Man” (Theo von Alten) moves in. He keeps looking at her with heavy-lidded eyes and a slightly svengalian gaze. In Paris Betty buys gowns and acts giddily until her father (Gordon Harker) shows up and tells her their fortune has disappeared. So they move into a little apartment and Betty tries to cook and tries to sell her jewelry and gets a scandalous job as a cigarette girl. Of course the whole thing was a set—up, to test her and to build character. The father wanted to teach the girl what was truly valuable, and The Man was in on the plot; she forgives them and as the movie winds to an end she’s about to marry “The Boy.” Balfour has a bright, softly triangular face, and she acts giddiness, resolve, wounded pride, and joy quite well. The movie is not really a mystery like so much of Hitchcock’s later work, though it does have some of the misdirection Hitchcock later perfected. The most interesting thing, for me, is the camerawork — cinematography by Jack E. Cox — because of the champagne-glass shot, repeated at the end, and because there are seven or eight quite remarkable shots when the actor walks straight into the camera from middle distance to extreme close-up, looking straight at us, until the cut to whoever it is he or she’s looking at, a sort of reverse point-of-view technique.

Gummo (Harmony Korine, 1997)

What passes for style in this “auteur” independent film is little more than randomness, varieties of the grotesque, casual cruelty, and a patina of calm in the midst of clutter and senselessness. Korine frames the story with video footage of tornadoes, and an almost inaudible child’s voice tells of wreckage and carnage in Xenia, Ohio. Apparently this provides the context for inventing a cohort nihilistic characters and megadoses of rather grim absurdity. The the rest of the movie alternates between the dull adventures of Solomon aka Gummo (Jacob Reynolds) and his friend Tummler (Nick Sutton), gluesniffing boys who ride BMX bikes through town killing cats to sell by the pound, and two young tow-headed sisters (Chloe Sevigny and Carisa Glucksman), who drift about aimlessly and experimentally. Also featured is the Bunny Boy (Jacob Sewell), who appears mournful and fragile and arbitrary. And a host of small-town people in various stages of dementia, obesity, undress, inebriation, exhibitionism, and so forth. Every interior is crowded with junk, so there’s barely space for the characters to walk into a room. Only the retarded people have neat bedrooms. Tummler has a young, tired face. Gummo has strong features in the upper half of his face, and a receding chin, and his hair is swept up like a woodpecker’s crest. There is some striking imagery and a few interesting lines in the script, but the whole piece seems contrived and self-indulgent, and aimed at three effects that probably are at war with each other: 1) the film-maker’s undisputed ability to generate striking images in support of (or extraneous to) a narrative; 2) a desire to shock the bourgeois audience; 3) a curiosity about people at the fringes of society or at the edges of a world that has stopped making sense. Ultimately, the movie operates by what I would call a geek aesthetic. That is, it means to attract by selling the audience a promise of the grotesque, and it sort of delivers on this promise.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Lotte Reineger, 1926)

A truly beautiful movie made by animating silhouettes or shadow puppets. Reineger cut out each puppet with scissors, attaching moving parts with thread. The astonishing detail—the lacy clothing and the flight dress of the Peri, for instance, and the fantastic palaces and costumes—are all incredibly fine and precise, and as beautiful as any Indonesian shadow puppet I’ve seen.

The story centres around magical compulsion and getting hopelessly lost. A wicked African sorceror tricks Prince Achmed into mounting a flying horse, at first exhilirating and charming, but before long the enchanted horse has gotten Achmed thoroughly him lost. He lands on an island where he chances sees three Peris land beside a lake and take off their bird identity/costume to bathe. Peris are winged creatures halfway between angels and humans.
Prince Achmed pursues and captures the princess Peri Banu. She’s terrified and shy, but he slowly wins her over, but the sorceror returns to steal the horse and leave the Prince all alone. He meets Aladdin, who has also been tricked by the sorceror, and together with the Hexe, apparently a fire-witch, they defeat the sorceror and all the divs and demons of the island where Peri Banu has been taken prisoner, and they return home to Aladdin’s palace, Prince Achmed with Peri Banu, and Aladdin with Princess Dinarba.

I'm not aware of other animations done wholly with shadow puppets, so perhaps Reineger's masterpiece is unique.