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.