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.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Les liaisons dangereuses (Roger Vadim, 1959)

One of the best films about heartlessness ever made, largely because of the fine work of Jeanne Moreau as Juliette and Gérard Philipe as Valmont. The story is taken a long way from the 18th-century roman of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, but the dynamics are surprisingly faithful.. Setting most of the action at a ski resort is especially brilliant, because it’s at once full of glamour and quite enclosed. For a while the film seems to be a sort of sex comedy, especially with the seduction of the young cousin Cecile (Jeanne Valérie), who is in love with fellow student Danceny (Jean-Louis Trintignant) but engaged to an exceedingly dull fellow chosen by her family. Cecile is very comely, and the post-seduction scene when she lies nude on her stomach doing her geometry homework and Valmont rests the textbook on her bum—it’s sweet and amusing.

Inevitably, the whole thing turns sour when Juliette steals Danceny and forces Valmont to abandon the virtuous Marianne (Annette Vadim) with whom he’s actually fallen in love. Moreau is strong and beautiful and twisted, a tour-de-force acting job. At last, an angry Danceny strikes despairing but still glamorous Valmont, who falls and hits his head on an andiron and dies. Juliette accidentally sets her clothing on fire trying to burn their awful letters. Marianne goes mad when she learns of Valmont’s death, and with a trance-like smile talks softly about the imaginary home they might have had together. "Rose, rose..." she murmurs.

The photography is really fine, and the best additional thing is the wonderful music by Thelonius Monk and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. It’s even better than I’d remembered it from many years ago. Watching this makes the American versions--Dangerous Liaisons and Cruel Intentions seem all the more flat and bland and listless.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Veer-Zaara (Vash Chopra, 2004)

An epic romance, some three hours of singing, scenery, love, loss, despair, hope, and reconciliation. Beautiful Pakistani human rights lawyer Saamiya Siddiqi (Rani Mukherjee) visits an unidentified Indian prisoner who has been silent in his prison for 22 years. After calls him by his real name, he tells his story. A beautiful Pakistani girl, Zaara (Preity Zinta) left Lahore a little over twenty years ago, to bring her Aya’s ashes to the Sikh temple in India--an act of personal integrity and devotion, honouring the old woman's beliefs even though her Muslim family forbade it. But on the way her bus crashes and she is the last passenger to be rescued by handsome Indian policeman Veer Pratap Singh (Sharukh Khan). Veer helps her honour her aya and takes her to his village to meet his family. The inevitable happens. Veer and Zaara fall in love. However (of course) she’s already engaged, promised to the son of her father’s potential political ally back in Pakistan. They part, but Zaara's affianced groom, to avenge what he considers a slight to his honour, arranges to have Veer thrown in prison. There he remains for years and years. He will not tell his story because he has sworn never to speak Zaara’s name, to protect her honour.

The movie is deeply romantic, filled with yearning for homeland and joy. And it affirms generosity and openness. And because the story is framed with the dogged persistence of the lawyer who insists on opening Veer's case, equally moved by the injustice of his incarceration and by the romantic pathos of his suffering, and because the whole rotten plot against Veer and Zaara was made possible by the patriarchal orders of her family, the film has a strongly feminist slant. Moreover, the story constantly undermines communalism with appeals to common humanity--a romance between a Sikh and a Muslim, a Pakistani human rights lawyer consumed by indignation against mistreatment of an Indian prisoner. The good people, especially Saamiya, Zaara’s mother, and Veer’s family, all embody an amazing warmth and understanding. Granted, the plot may be predictable, but it is still very moving, filled with deep sadness and joy, the music and dancing very good, the photography excellent, and the colour brilliant.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Behind the Green Door (Artie & Jim Mitchell, 1972)

It has been said that this is the movie in which pornography entered the mainstream market, and others have said it’s the first porn movie made as a serious film. Probably neither statement is really very accurate. Though there is no doubt that the film created a buzz in places that would never have discussed such things—highbrow magazines, film criticism, pop culture—Behind the Green Door was never taken seriously, except by those who marked its ambition as a piece of explicit erotica made as if it had been taken seriously by its directors. Perhaps that’s true enough, for there are signs that the Mitchell brothers were aiming for some of the effects associated with seriousness. There’s a narrative framework which sets out to place the erotic fairy tale inside the walls of anecdote. Three men—a middle-aged coffee-drinker and a middle-aged cook and a young truck-driver—meet in a diner, and the cook asks to hear the story they’ve been promising him. Then there’s a fade to some sort of resort and a long episode of meaningless babble as the coffee-drinker tells a tedious story to the young truck-driver at an outdoor table. A young woman is seated at a distant table. She watches.

A bit later the story begins: the young woman is abducted and taken forcibly in a limousine to a secret club, where she is subjected to a series of sexual activities for the viewing pleasure of a select membership. The woman is played by Marilyn Chambers, a model who around the same time had a contract with Ivory Soap, for whom she portrayed a wholesome, sweet-faced home-maker. This is the quality she brings to the film, too.
Gloria has no dialogue, no character—she only responds. The plot, such as it is, allows Gloria the (imaginary) luxury of complete passive enjoyment. Because she has no choice, she cannot be morally responsible, and so she is ostensibly in the ideal situation, well removed from the repressive mores of society, the enemy of enjoyment and fulfullment. In the seedy short-story this movie was based on, passed around in mimeograph copies half a century ago, Gloria was not only captured but drugged, given some sort of aphrodisiacal elixir to boosted her sexual appetite to epic proportions. But here Gloria is peaceful, neither sex-crazed nor hopped up in any way. On her arrival backstage, the “matron” soothes her with the rituals of pre-meditation relaxation. There follow three acts: in Act 1 half a dozen hooded women remove Gloria’s clothes as she stands on a carpeted stage, surrounded by a small, poorly-lit night-club audience, all masked. The women caress her and perform oral sex, and she responds by closing her eyes and moving sinuously. Act 2 begins with the arrival of the “African Stud” (Johnny Keys), a very fit black porn star sporting face-paint, a tooth or claw necklace, and white tights cut out at the groin, highlighting his erection. The women move away and there is a scene of intercourse during which Gloria becomes increasingly excited and ostensibly attains orgasm. The stud withdraws. Act 3 is the house specialty. A special trapeze set-up is lowered into place, with seats for three men, all wearing the same sort of white tights as the A.S., and they are adjusted to the right height so Gloria has an organ in her mouth and one in each hand, as well as sitting on another. This goes on for some time, during which the members of the audience move from admiration to leisurely masturbation to full orgy mode. Paradoxically, they are no longer able to watch the performance on stage. Act 3 ends with a series of ejaculations filmed artfully, first in high-definition and slow motion, then in increasingly abstract versions done in bright colours and with cinematic effects like prismatic lenses and so forth. Then the show is over and somebody carries the sated Gloria off stage. There is a long coda, in which the young truck-driver heads down the highway at night as the roadlights give way to a scene in which he and Gloria are alone, having glad mutually pleasing, voluntary sex—but it’s clearly a fantasy, since the ongoing shot of the highway continues under the bedroom scene. And then with the truck-driver's orgasm the dream is over.

So what’s it all about? Several related and yet contradictory things. One element of the “serious” purpose of making a “good” erotic movie--the novelist Terry Southern wrote the satire Blue Movie about people supposedly so motivated--is the unspoken assumption that society’s repression of human carnal appetite produces great malaise and psychic disturbance. Thus free expression of sexuality is somehow liberating, even revolutionary. Dollar-store D.H. Lawrence, perhaps, but there it is, one of the great cliches of the 1960s. Wrap this up with a notion of esoteric rituals and it takes on a kind of haltingly, ponderous significance. Here, too, the Mitchells emulate “serious” film, attempting a Fellini-esque ambience by populating the night-club with solid citizens, pretty women, and grotesques, including a hugely obese woman and several people wearing what look like Venetian carnival masks or make-up. And a mime, no less. Old and young, handsome and unlovely. Another contradiction is easily discernible in the implicit violence of the kidnapping and the supposedly liberating ritual of excess—this is, after all, only a plot structure founded on the objectification of the female. But what makes this different from pornography unsurrounded with artistic notions or pretensions? Though it isn’t entirely successful, the film does try to do more than serving up a series of bare encounters. Part of what it tries to do is to splice together the sources of enjoyment common to “cinema” and to “porn.” Commercially-made North-American erotica generally caters to a male audience who want to see a woman involved with uninhibited sexual activity, at least pretending to enjoy it, and at least pretending to enjoy the pleasure of the other participant(s). The mechanism of the watcher, the voyeur, depends on a fantasy crossing of borders: the woman who is the object (recipient, receptacle) of sexual activity is enacting what in “normal” life is only imaginary. The key to the watcher's enjoyment is the illusion of her imaginary willingness, figured in both expression, her simulated orgasms, and most of all—that she is doing it. That is a real vagina, that is a real penis, that is real semen. Is there willing suspension of disbelief in watching? Perhaps, but in Behind the Green Door willing suspension of disbelief doesn’t come from narrative structure or character, as in novels or more well-thought-out movies. It comes only from physical evidence. Act 2 is unusual because it concludes with female orgasm—albeit such things are never verifiable—rather than the trite fountains of male ejaculation that are adduced as if to certify that the package contains real sex (as well as to maximize the masculine monopoly on enjoyment). That is, the A.S. leaves the stage after her orgasm, not his, which evidently doesn't happen. The multiple, artsily-photographed fountaining at the end of Act III goes far to make up for this momentary aberration, but the Mitchell Brothers were on to something here. In the midst of the sexual multiplication, the trapeze-mounted orgasms and the writhing, groping, smiling, moaning audience-participants, Gloria disappears. Remember, the audience becomes too occupied with their own gropings and wheezings. At first Gloria is a map of orgasmic possibility, then an accessory, then a backdrop, then a misty ideal of complete feminine satiation by means of plenty. Sated and completely relaxed in the arms of the stagehand who takes her back behind the green door, Gloria is completed, and completely gone. That she reappears in the truck-driver’s dream only proves her phantom existence.

It might not have worked this way with another actress. The presence of Chambers at the center of the story is strangely tranquil, even when she is in the throes of supposedly transformational delight. Of course, it doesn't really work at all, not by the standards of "real" movies, and yet when the movie came out in 1972, there was a real buzz among people who previously would never have discussed a porn film in public, articles in mainstream magazines and so forth. Did it change the history of erotic film? Perhaps so--its wide distribition probably made $25 million, and the extras (vestigial plot, dialogue, artsy camerawork) may have influenced others to make erotica with a story component. Marilyn Chambers wanted to be an actor, but it seems she wasn't as successful in that endeavour, so she became a kind of impresaria of porn, the Masterpiece-Theatre persona of pornography. She died in her 50s in April, 2009.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Sergeant York (Howard Hawks, 1941)

Gary Cooper was a boyish 41 when he played the part of the young Tennessee prodigy Alvin York, first a great tear-away drunk, then a lightning-struck Christian guided by the densely-eyebrowed Pastor Rosier Pile (Walter Brennan), then a love-struck suitor of Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie), and finally a soldier of great courage and initiative, both a sharpshooter and a natural strategist on the battlefield. But first, for the sake of the story, he had some growing up to do, which happens when he falls for Gracie and decides to buy some bottomland, selling a mule and some furs and a clock and other stuff, and working very hard for a lot of people. In the two months he’s got to raise the rest of the money, he works desperately hard and with a sort of glow of dedication. But at the end of the time he’s just a little short, asks for a few more days, and the geezer with the land for sale reluctantly consents. So Alvin goes to a shooting match and naturally enough wins it all—but the geezer shows up to say he’s sold the land to Alvin’s rival. Alvin looks thunderous, Gracie tells him it doesn’t matter, he answers that it does to him, and strides off.

When war with Germany breaks out and a draft is mandated, Alvin is set against registering because his understanding of the Bible is that God declared that killing is wrong. The Pastor helps him apply for conscientious objector status, which the government denies because the Pastor’s church is not one with a tradition of opposing war. So he goes off to the army. Somehow they learn that he tried to get a deferment and keep their eye on him—but when he behaves politely and when he shoots multiple bullseyes on the target range their opinion of him changes. He rejects an offer of promotion, but a sympathetic officer discusses biblical passages and offers him a book on American history and a furlough to read it. Alvin reads and thinks up on a mountain, and the wind opens his Bible to the passage about rendering unto Caesar those things which are Caesar’s and unto God those things which are God’s. That does it for him, and he returns, accepts the promotion to corporal, and they’re off to France.

Just as a big battle is about to happen, there’s an interlude in the trenches, during which a plucky Cockney teaches the Yanks how to ignore the incoming artillery shells that are going to miss them—and then he’s killed (a nice touch, plucky Britain and Britons, in 1941). The battle begins without the promised screening barrage, and many of Alvin’s company are killed or wounded, including his sergeant, who tells him he’s in charge. So Alvin decides that the machine guns need to be taken out and does it himself, using folksy hunting techniques. He captures 152 German soldiers (with only 8 Americans) and becomes a hero, decorated by the French, British, and American generals. Later, the sympathetic officer asks him how many Germans he killed, and Alvin answers that he doesn’t know. The way he looked at it, they were killing his men and he had to stop it, that’s all—he only killed the enemy to save lives.

A tickertape parade in New York is nice, but offers of corporate money to advertise products revolts him. He doesn’t mean to profit from what he did.
So he goes home, tells Gracie they will have to wait a few years until he can save up enough to buy their place, and she leads him to the spot where the grateful state of Tennessee has paid for the land and a house and everything. The story ends with the happy couple walking hand-in-hand towards the house.

Some other points are worth mentioning. The movie struggles between the earnest desire to portray the hillbilly folk as simple, good people and the irresistible temptation to caricature them. The way the mountain folk speak is mannered and absurd, but Cooper pulls it off, matching the quaint diction with a look of innocent gravity (his specialty). The gravity of Mother York (Margaret Wycherly) is particularly well-done; she has small, almost beady, intense eyes and a well of reserve. And there is a nice bit of character balance bringing in a Bronx subway trainman nicknamed Pusher (George Tobias) to impart a bit of urban naivete, Pusher uses his experience with trains as a metaphor for understanding the world (when he's mortally wounded his last words are something about catching the last car), just as Alvin uses hunting and mountain culture metaphors.

Finally, while the issue of Alvin’s convictions is handled cleverly, I can’t help thinking the arguments that sway him are sophistical. There is no doubt that the character is selflessly heroic in action, and it is true that the movie acknowledges he is a reluctant soldier, but the argument of patriotism is a little weak in the delivery, and especially suspect because of the swelling upsurge of sentimental-patriotic music as Alvin reads the book about American history. But of course there is a polemical thrust to WW I movies made in the early 1940s—it’s meant to show Americans going to the aid of an embattled Europe, and it’s purpose is morale-boosting, resisting isolationism, and inspiring American youth to a patriotic fervor.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Unholy Three (Tod Browning, 1925)

This surprisingly good silent film combines the carnival and criminal worlds. In the beginning, Echo the Ventriloquist (Lon Chaney) is working a sideshow, along with Hercules the Strong Man (Victor McLaglen) and baby-faced small man Tweedledee, aka Little Willie (Harry Earles), and Rosie O’Grady (Mae Busch) works the crowd as a pickpocket. Echo closes his act by saying “That’s all there is to life, friends…a little laughter….a little tear...” Eager to get out of this life, the three concoct a plan to burgle houses they scope out by selling parrots to the owners. Chaney is a convincing cross-dressed Granny O’Grady, and things go well until Rosie falls in love with the straight shop assistant Hector. Hercules and Little Willie go out to do a robbery without Echo and wind up killing the owner of the house they are robbing. They plant evidence on Hector and hide, but Rosie prevails on Echo to save him. Eventually he does, quite dramatically in the courtroom, and when Rosie arrives at the sideshow to make good her promise to stay with him if he saves Hector, Echo says he was just kidding and lets her go, his heart breaking but a smile on his face, and the movie ending with his motto repeated. Busch is remarkable for being able to play the moll with a sneer and mocking laughter and a demi-ingenue in love, and she’s lovely in both modes. McLaglen is big, and Earles is little. And Chaney’s repertoire of facial expressions is nothing short of amazing—his posture and gestures make his Granny convincing, though if you watch carefully you can see the other layer of character, Echo, just inside. It’s a tour-de-force performance, almost enough to make one forget about the absurdity of hingeing the plot of a silent movie on ventriloquism…

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Marmoulak / The Lizard (Kamal Tabrizi, 2004)

A surprisingly gentle, funny, humane, and yet devout movie from Iran. The hero is Reza Marmalouk, Reza the Lizard (Parviz Parastui), a burglar specializing in climbing. As he enters prison, he encounters a chilly warden who says it’s his job to help the prisoners, a task carried out by sending them to solitary. When Reza accidentally cuts himself he is transferred to the hospital, where he shares a room with a holy man, a mullah, who instead of judging him as a thief speaks very kindly. Reza steals his clothes and escapes, but wanders into a village that has been eagerly awaiting a clergyman. From then on his attempts to escape backfire—not badly, but well, for the villagers interpret his visits to the criminal quarter (where he’s searching for a forged passport) as acts of charity in disguise. His preaching is earthy and inclusive—“There is no one in this world who doesn’t have a path to reach God.” This seems to be the movie’s theme, and somehow he manages to help people discern their paths, and gradually becomes the mullah he’s pretending to be. He still keeps some of his criminal lingo; in a sermon delivered in a jail, he says, “God is the heaviest dude in gentleness, the heaviest dude in kindness, the heaviest dude in friendship, and the heaviest dude in forgiving.” The steely warden tracks him down, and the director Tabrizi leaves the ending open. Reza hands his mullah outfit to a boy, saying that clothing tames people, and people need to be tamed, and he goes off with the warden, who tells his associate handcuffs won’t be necessary. Or does Reza go? The film ends with a beautiful song, with the refrain “I am waiting,” and the police car disappears down the street and the men in the mosque turn as if greeting him—then a freeze-frame with his voice speaking the lines about many paths, and then the credits roll, and several other voice-over lines pop up. Did the warden relent and find his own path? A very funny and moving film, extraordinarily well-acted by Parastui

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Mark of Zorro (Fred Niblo, 1920)

A vehicle for Douglas Fairbanks to leap about and fight oppression and win the hand of the lovely Lolita Pulido (Marguerite de la Motte), who not surprisingly despises the pallid Don Diego and loves the intrepid Zorro. Fairbanks keeps his shirt on, very unusual for him, but even so he moves with considerable nimbleness. He leaps straight from the ground to the back of a galloping horse. The Bad Guy is tall Captain Juan Ramon (Robert McKim), something of a wannabe swashbuckler himself, but a bully and craven and a shameless kidnapper of reluctant maidens. Also bad is the judge who condemns the saintly Franciscan friar Fray Felipe (Walt Whitman—no, really, not the poet) to fifteen lashes. The colonial governor sent by oppressive Spain way off in Old Europe is Bad too; not only is he a tyrant but he appears to be habitually poorly groomed. The Old California sets and landscapes are nice, familiar from countless California western locations, but somehow quite refreshingly old--still older than the cowboy settings. The “natives” are actually real indigenous people, apparently, and they retain some dignity, not easy to do under oppression. For that matter, not easy under all the well-meaning Zorrovian interventions, either.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Vampyr: Der Traum des Allan Gray (Carl Dreyer, 1932)

This film seems to occupy a zone at the borders of a lot of different genres. Of course it is a vampire movie, complete with an ancient creature, Marguerite Chopin, with dark powers, corrupted minions, pale and suffering female victims, and an earnest young man appalled but also fascinated. In this instance the well dressed young man Allan Gray (Julian West)—he’s always wearing a tie—arrives as things are falling apart. Fueled by a sense of dread, as the intertitles inform us, Allan wanders all over the manor on the bright moonlit nights. He sees the shadows of people digging, arguing, and dancing, he sees disturbing glimpses of ominous things, and even the ordinary things about the place take on a tone of ominousness. At one point he becomes insubstantial, his transparent hand opening a door. He sees himself in a coffin with a little window, and then we see as he would see from inside, the peg-legged soldier screwing down the lid, the vampire peering in, a candle burning and melting. There are scenes of chasing, of rowing a boat in the fog, of Allan staring incredulously at the dying father, the anemic daughter, the manifold strangenesses—all this suggests the work of Man Ray and people like that, rather than than a traditional vampire narrative. After reading the book the father has left behind for Allan, the elderly handyman goes off to the churchyard to drive a stake through the monster's heart, and Allan helps. The body in the coffin turns to bones, the peg-legged soldier falls downstairs, the wicked doctor is suffocated with flour in the mill, the anemic woman is revived, and her young, wide-eyed sister and Allan go running through the woods toward the light –the emblematic happy ending. A good deal of the film is beautifully shot, using experimental techniques. Another odd thing is that the film has a sound track, with scary music and sounds, but there’s not a lot of talking and a lot of scenes involve lengthy close-ups of faces changing expression, and so it feels a lot like a silent film. And because so much of the film is mediated through Allan, whose dream it is, there’s not really so much scariness.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren, 1943)

A thirteen-minute experimental film made in Los Angeles by Maya Deren (née Eleanora Derenkowsky) and Alexander Hammid. The film is an unusual hybrid of surrealism, Freudian symbol, and art photography—as if Martha Graham and Luis Bunuel had collaborated on a project with an accomplished photographer who’d just been given her first movie camera. Actually, Deren had really just purchased a 16mm Bolex camera, and she and Hammid shot the film together. There is no plot, naturally, for the images and sequences recur, sometimes with variations, as do the symbolic set-pieces. The woman sees a tall, hooded figure with a mirror instead of a face and she follows it out of her house and along a summer street. She enters a room, sees the figure carry a large flower up some stairs and drop it on the bed. Or she is at home asleep in a chair. The figure is walking away as she watches it—and herself following—from the window. She takes a key from her mouth. She finds a butcher knife and carries it around. She is asleep. She is running. She enters a room where she sees two more doubles of herself sitting at a table. In turn each one picks up the key and it disappears and reappears back on the table, until one of the duplicate woman turns her hand over to reveal a darkened hand (blood?) holding the key, which turns into the knife. The man arrives carrying the big flower and they go to the bedroom where he strokes her, and she breaks the mirror of his face. Mirror fragments on the beach. Waves. The man is coming up the street, enters, and sees the woman dead in her chair. The whole piece has a muted, anxious lyricism; Deren is dressed in the stylish garb of an early-1940s bohemian and has piles of curly hair and an intelligent and sensual face. Hammid looks like a handsome revolutionary sailor from an Eisenstein movie. “Serious” droning music was added some years later, composed by Deren’s next husband, Teiji Ito. There’s no way of explaining the film—like most surrealist pieces it gets its life from the tension between images, rather than from any explicable narrative or coherent pattern of symbolic meaning.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Caccia al Volpe / After the Fox (Vittorio de Sica, 1966)

Two things—a Peter Sellers comedy, which is good enough in itself. Here he plays Aldo Vanucci, an Italian master criminal, with full Italian cinema shtick, first as a gangster, and then as an over-the-top director Federico Fabrizi (the parodic snipe at Fellini is right out front). Vanucci conceives a scheme to smuggle gold stolen in Egypt by the befezzed Egyptian Okra (Akim Tamiroff, ready to play any sort of exotic foreigner), under the cover of making a movie. To do so, he steals the production equipment from Vittorio de Sica, playing himself in a brilliant satiric setpiece: as Moses walks into the desert, the director, riding on a crane, cries out, “More sand! More sand in the desert!” The giant fans blow and dust envelops everything. When it clears, de Sica is sitting on the ground and every bit of equipment is gone. And then the production, in a tiny coastal village, is a breathtaking parody of neorealism, with all the villagers clamoring to play parts, the vagueness and phony existentialism of the director’s posturing, and the cheekbones of the starstruck police chief (Lando Buzzanca). "Fabrizi" lures a has-been romantic lead Tony Powell (Victor Mature) and casts his girlfriend "Gina Romantica" (Britt Ekland) to play the ingenue. So much of the film industry and film culture is satirized it's hard to keep up a list--the international crime caper (think Pink Panther, Topkapi, etc), the epic film, the greed of producers, the affected mannerisms of directors, the overblown egos of actors, the unthinking adulation of the public, the barely submerged longing in everyday people for admission to the world of movies, and more.

At the trial—because of course everything goes wrong and everybody is arrested—the prosecutor shows the film the gang shot while carrying out their scam. It's a grotesque jumble of random black & white footage, but a film critic in the courtroom leaps to his feet applauding, and is carried out of the courtroom crying out that it is a work of primitive genius. The story is by Neil Simon, the star turn is by Peter Sellers, but the parody is pure de Sica. And the movie's satirical richness startled me; I had no idea!

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Young Mr. Pitt (Carol Reed, 1942)

Robert Donat plays Pitt as a patriotic man of principle, hating war but recognizing the need to resist the French attempt to conquer the world, doing battle with the know-nothing anti-war opposition led by Charles James Fox (Robert Morley), and aided by loyal, good men of various sorts. Pitt gives up his private life and his health for the country. From the peril of the English people to the reluctance of government to face danger to the treacherous and greedy fulminations of a tyrant (Napoleon, played well but briefly by Herbert Lom)—this is really all a fable of the second world war. It’s an impressive work, fiction as much as history.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Frankenstein movies...

I. Frankenstein (James Whale,1932). Images from this movie are current in popular culture three-quarters of a century later. Whale manages to create shadowy black and white scenes of compelling, almost expressionist sharpness. Boris Karloff as the monster is hulking and impressive, and wholly creaturely—not a shred of humanity here, unlike the creation of the author here billed as “Mrs. Percy Shelley.” True, there is a little playfulness, and he likes children—though he throws little Maria into the lake after they run out of flower petals to throw. Colin Clive is the nervous doctor, whose impression of genius borders on the neurasthenic. He is only animated when he cries out, “It’s alive!” The monster dies in the fire that consumes the windmill where he takes refuge from the angry visitors.

II. Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935): This sequel begins with a truly horrifying little skit: an overdressed trio of actors impersonating Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron chat in an overdecorated drawing room while thunder rages outside the window. Byron (Gavin Gordon) limps slightly and rolls his Rs and waggles his eyebrows at Mary (Elsa Lanchester) flirtatiously. Mary allows that she has more stories to tell, and then this one starts right up. Henry Frankenstein is pursued by the ominous Dr. Pretorius (Ernst Thesiger) who has plans to make a female creature, and so he does. It’s Miss Lanchester, she of the electrical hair—but in fact she's really only in the movie for five minutes or so. A few tidbits from the original book occur here (the blind violinist). A comic role, Minnie the noisy maid, is added for Una O’Connor. The monster dies in the explosion in the tower.

III. Son of Frankenstein (Rowland Lee, 1939): The monster (Karloff) is joined by Ygor (Bela Lugosi), who has befriended and taken over him, using him to kill the village jurors who previously had sentenced him (Ygor) to hang. They hide out in a stone dome laboratory, partly ruined. Lionel Atwil makes a good Inspector, complete with a prosthetic arm that locks in place and is almost as hard to control as Dr. Strangelove’s hand. Oh, and he stores his darts in the wooden arm. Eventually the monster dies in a pit of boiling sulphur.

IV. The Ghost of Frankenstein (Earl C. Kenton, 1942): The fourth of the early series, this time straying farther and farther afield--this could be one of the first major B-movie franchises, and Karloff was not invited to the party. It turns out that Dr. Heinrich Frankenstein had a brother, Ludwig (Cedric Hardwicke), who is an eminent psychiatrist with tired-looking eyes, a frustrated assistant, and a pretty daughter. Ygor, the assistant (Bela Lugosi) digs up the monster (Lon Chaney) out of the sulphur pit and goes to the hospital, where he plans to have his own brain transplanted into the monster's skull. Then it's alive. I forget how the monster dies this time.

V. Frankenstein meets the Wolfman (Roy William Neill, 1943): What a great idea! Let the stars of two spooky franchise work together, sort of like a scary Hope and Crosby on the Road to Transylvania. Poor Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), brokenhearted lycanthrope, chips the monster (Bela Lugosi) out of a giant block of ice. Perhaps to justify Lugosi's exotic accent, the location has shifted mysteriously to a small central European country of Vasalia, home of Castle Frankenstein, where the Countess Frankestein (Ilona Massey). Some of the cast from the Wolfman have strayed onto the set, notably the old gypsy fortuneteller Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya). The monster dies again in the end, of course.

VI. House of Frankenstein (Erle C. Kenton, 1944). It's a party and everybody's invited! The wolfman returns, played by Lon Chaney as a sad, cursed soul longing for the release promised by the evil Dr. Niemann (Boris Karloff) and his hunchbacked assistant Daniel (J. Carroll Naish), in love with the gypsy girl Ilonka (Elena Verdugo), also the object of Daniel’s fruitless passion. Escaping from an asylum after a terrific thunderstorm, Niemann and Daniel take over a travelling show of horrors after killing the proprietor, and reawaken Dracula (John Carradine), who moves about menacingly, opens his eyes wide, and becomes a badly-animated bat, but then he disappears from the plot fairly early. Some of the same minor players from earlier movies appear, notably Leonard Atwill and Sig Ruman, but the movie is noteworthy for its complete embodiment of the generic horror story with a cast of, well, dozens. It’s fascinating to see two ex-monsters in human guise; the monster is played by an extra and has very little to do except die in the last minutes of the movie, this time in quicksand.