Saturday, August 29, 2015

Pre-Code Parade: DOWNSTAIRS (1932)

 
At Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, in the death throes of his stardom, Buster Keaton pitched what he thought might be a career-saving story idea. Having lobbied unsuccessfully to be cast in Grand Hotel, Buster proposed a full-scale parody of the movie, featuring himself and all the studio's comics and grotesques. The studio shot down the idea. They weren't out to sabotage Keaton, or so we assume, but still thought, with an eye on the box office, that they knew best how to make Buster Keaton movies. Meanwhile, according to legend, M-G-M was out to sabotage the career of John Gilbert, their great lover of the silent screen, but when he pitched a potentially career-saving story idea around the same time, the studio bought it and made his authorship a selling point for the finished film.

As it happened, Downstairs had some more selling points. On the set, Gilbert had wooed and won his leading lady, Virginia Bruce, and Metro emphasized this as fresh proof of the actor's great-lover status. To drive this point home more strongly, after repeatedly trying to sell the public a "new" Gilbert the publicity department let people know that this time, at last, the old Gilbert, the one everyone loved, was back. Such audiences as took the bait, drawn by the ads or rave reviews in the newspapers, were in for a shock -- or so we might assume. But Gilbert may have understood something about his star appeal that doesn't necessarily match our distant view of him as a silent lover but makes Downstairs his best talkie. Some instinct may have told him that in a fight for his professional life in the Pre-Code era, it was time to get evil.


Two words show up in a lot of contemporary reviews of Downstairs: "Von" and "Stroheim." Gilbert had starred in Erich von Stroheim's Merry Widow in 1925 and seems to have been taken with the man. One paper reports that at one time Downstairs was envisioned as some kind of Von Stroheim movie, but with Gilbert directing Von rather than vice versa. Whatever might have been, the character Gilbert ended up creating for himself, Karl the chauffeur, was described as a Von Stroheim type. Presumably that means he was a man you could love to hate. Karl is clearly a man you're supposed to hate, but part of that, I think, is because he might also be easy to love. Another part is that he loves, or makes love, too easily.

I've heard Downstairs described as a precursor of both the old Upstairs, Downstairs TV show and the present Downton Abbey, so I was surprised to see it take place not in Britain, but somewhere in Mitteleuropa. The Baron (Reginald Owen) is celebrating the wedding of his head butler Albert (Paul Lukas) and Anna the maid (Bruce) in Universal-village style, complete with knee-slapping, yodeling and some ceremonial grape-stomping by the bride. In this environment, hearing Lukas's Hungarian accent left me wondering how many chances poor Bela Lugosi didn't get simply because Lukas existed. That led to me wondering whether Gilbert as a vampire would have been a good career move, but clearly I digress. Anyway, the happy day is Karl's first day of work for the baron, and how appropriate it is that he begins as a wedding crasher. We're warned early that Karl is bad news, but apparently aristocrats have no blacklist to put him on and the Baron and Baroness (Olga Baclanova) have no worries about hiring him. One of the subtle messages sent by Gilbert and the actual screenwriters, Melville Baker and Lenore Coffee, is that the different moral standards that apply upstairs, where the rich dwell, and downstairs, where the servants live, give an unscrupulous servant plenty of room to maneuver. Karl is ready to exploit every opportunity, either to make money or to score with Anna behind Albert's back. It becomes apparent that Karl will screw, or screw with, everybody. He seduces a rather homely cook to get at the bankroll she stuffs in her stocking while blackmailing the Baroness once he realizes she's having an affair. Having stolen one of her jewels and given it to Anna, he saves Anna's job, when the Baroness accuses her of stealing it, by claiming to have bought it himself from an address the Baroness recognizes all too well.

Albert the butler is our hero by default, but he's a bit of a prig, and his reserved attitude of propriety and duty leaves Anna vulnerable to Karl's attentions. His weakness, the film makes clear, is his dispassion. When Anna finally succumbs to Karl, and Albert discovers it, the maid challenges her husband, throwing in his face the profound difference between the way he "makes love" and the way Karl does. Even for a Pre-Code film, it's bracingly clear that by "making love" Anna doesn't mean serenading her under the balcony or saying, "I love you, I love you, I love you!" To win Anna back, Albert has to discover some passion of his own. Fortunately, he becomes passionately motivated to kick the crap out of Karl, though the climax proves slightly anticlimactic, if only because it looked for a brief moment as if Karl was going to get shot by "accident" during a boar hunt. That wouldn't have served Gilbert's purpose, however. Karl may lose this battle, and he may have to abandon the field, but in his downstairs-upstairs world there's always another castle where he can land on his feet and hit the ground running. But really! Does no one ask for references? Not in Karl's world, it seems...

Gilbert's grafting of himself on a Stroheim model was a self-reinvention that may have been decades ahead of his time. Karl seems more modern than his surroundings, and with sympathetic writers realizing Gilbert's ideas, along with producer-director Monta Bell, Downstairs seems adult in a modern way even by Pre-Code standards. In my survey of Gilbert's talkies I've cited approvingly the arrogance of his escape-artist character in Phantom of Paris. Downstairs takes that positive arrogance to amoral heights. It's essential to the aggression that re-energizes Gilbert, and if it makes him more modern in our eyes it also really does bring back the old Gilbert if we accept that the old Gilbert was first and foremost a sex symbol. Downstairs depends absolutely on Gilbert's sex-symbol status; it presumes that audiences want to see him seduce women. Only that expectation makes Karl tolerable as a human being, and it also gives him a fantasy's freedom of action. In an age of gold-diggers, Gilbert's instinct seemed to tell him that he had to be not just an aggressor but a predator, and his gamble was that he could make audiences like it. For film buffs his gamble paid off in the long run, but in 1932 Downstairs could succeed at the box office only if women still dreamed of Gilbert seducing them, or if men imagined themselves as Gilbert seducing women, or imagined themselves kicking Gilbert's ass -- and since the next Gilbert picture was Fast Workers, once more promising a "new" Gilbert in a working-class milieu, we must presume either that Downstairs flopped or that, as many still assume, the fix was in at Metro. It's a shame either way that Gilbert couldn't follow up on this breakthrough, since Downstairs fully lives up to its reputation as his best sound film. For once you don't find yourself analyzing his voice because what he's doing commands your attention. This film restores the pure physicality that was his primary asset in silents; it's quite well-written but Gilbert's body language is just as important in building his performance. The saddest thing about it is that Gilbert finally solved the problem of sound film himself, by becoming as close to an auteur that he'd ever get, but was still chained, like Keaton (who had his own interesting ideas about sound comedy that were ignored), to an unsympathetic studio. By the time Metro was done with both men, they were alcoholic ruins. Keaton recovered, though it took a while and fully regained his old stardom, but Gilbert was dead by 1936. He's still remembered best for his silent films, but while they're monuments to what he was, Downstairs is a monument to what he could have been.


Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Pre-Code Parade: WATERLOO BRIDGE (1931)

1931 was a busy year for Mae Clarke. She had dues to pay on screen. Among other things, she had to take a grapefruit in the face from James Cagney and be menaced by the Frankenstein monster. At the end of the year, however, she could be excused for not believing that these would be just about the only two events for which she'd be remembered 84 years later. Wasn't this the year she became a star in her own right in one of the most acclaimed performances of 1931? Of course, Waterloo Bridge was a lucky break for Clarke, who replaced Rose Hobart (who would achieve a sort of immortality in another, indirect way) in the lead at the last minute. She would never be so lucky again, apart from those fateful encounters with Cagney and Karloff. Within two years (after a nervous breakdown) she was getting thankless roles like the gold-digger in Fast Workers. By then she had run the gamut, for the heroine of Waterloo Bridge is the antithesis of the gold-digger.

In this tale of Americans in Britain during the Great War, we meet Myra Deauville (Clarke) on the closing night of The Ring Boys, a musical in which she was part of the chorus. In the festive farewell atmosphere she pulls faces during the finale and seems pretty hard-boiled about her misfortune. Two years later we see her outside a theater wishing she'd done the show now entering its third year, and by her banter with a friend it becomes apparent, without the dread word being said, that Myra has become a prostitute. She works Waterloo Bridge (shown by director James Whale and the Universal effects team in a rather spectacular process shot and there finds an American, Roy Cronin (Kent Douglass) in the uniform of the Canadian Army. After taking shelter from a German air raid they go to her apartment, the innocent American boy still ignorant of her profession. Now she seems less hard-boiled than she had been, because she can't take money from Roy, even though all he wants, smitten on sight with her, is to help her with her rent. Presumably she responds to something guileless about the lad that compounds his appeal, and fortunately Whale gets a guileless, natural and likable performance from Douglass (aka Douglass Montgomery) in a role that could easily end up contemptibly obtuse. She isn't going to stop working, mind you, but she isn't going to go to work on him.

Roy doesn't take no for an answer, however, and finally convinces Myra to meet his family: his mother, his Whale-worldly father-in-law (the inimitable Frederick "Baron Frankenstein" Kerr) and kid sister Janet. In this last role, Bette Davis steals every scene she's in, in retrospect, just by being in it, though she really has very little to do, still having years of dues to pay, and is relegated at one point to an offscreen tennis match with Kerr while the rest of the cast watches. They're all lovely, classy people, and while the true gold-digger might do a Walter Huston dance upon hitting paydirt, Myra, the veteran prostitute, can't pull the trigger. Waterloo Bridge is based on a play by Robert E. Sherwood, a sophisticate of the legendary Algonquin Round Table, but when all is said and done it's the same old pathos of renunciation we know so well from Hollywood hokum. Confiding in Roy's mother, Myra admits her love for Roy but also confesses her unworthiness. The old lady is sympathetic and understanding, assuring Myra that she's a good girl after all by virtue of renouncing Roy. But since no one's going to tell Roy flatly that Myra won't marry him because she's a hooker, he keeps on trying to win her until Myra's nasty landlady (Ethel Griffies is like a more malevolent Una O'Connor) blasts him with the truth. Douglass's best moment in the film is when Roy interrupts the harridan's moralistic tirade by shouting, "Shut your dirty face!" That same inner goodness that inspires Myra to keep her distance from Roy keeps inspiring him to close the distance -- but now it's making her worthless as a prostitute. She seems to land a john, only to rebuke him before entering a coach with him, only to plead as he rides off that she didn't mean it. Numbly she returns to Waterloo Bridge, where Roy finds her and demands that she marry him, regardless of everything. With an army truck idling to take him back to the front, Myra finally consents just to be rid of him, or to get him out of harm's way as a zeppelin raid begins, while she idles on the bridge as if uncertain whether she wants shelter or not. She finally seems to pick up speed just as a bomb, seemingly meant for her and her alone, finds her. Boom. Dead. The End. It's a Universal Picture. A Good Cast is Worth Repeating.

What the bloody hell...? Was that supposed to be just desserts or cruel irony, or are we meant, like old-time superheroes, to look on death and mutter, "It's better this way?" The abruptness of it, the quick close without further commentary, reminds us that Whale is still somewhat raw as a director, though Waterloo Bridge is overall a slicker film than the perhaps deliberately rougher Frankenstein, released two months later. It also underscores that the scene doesn't really stand interpretation. It's a contrivance that should have grown increasingly intolerable as Depression audiences wanted to see scrappy heroines win and propriety be damned. If it didn't launch Mae Clarke into lasting stardom that's probably because, despite the versatility she shows, the role really is too good to be true, her fate too neat to be good. Or so it seems now, but the story was popular enough to be remade, with compromises required by Code Enforcement, twice over in the next quarter-century. Either it made sense then in a way it doesn't now, or the figure of the martyred prostitute had an appeal for quite a while that it has no longer. Whale's Waterloo Bridge -- long unseen after M-G-M bought the rights in order to remake it with Vivien Leigh -- is a historical artifact of a particular sort. Certain aspects of it have timeless virtues, and it will always have interest as part of Whale's filmography, but overall it has become a lesser film the less willing we are to believe it.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Pre-Code Parade: FAST WORKERS (1933)

From 1930 through 1933 it seemed that every John Gilbert film promised a "new" Gilbert. What this means was nothing was working for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's erstwhile romantic idol, whose lack of an effectively cinematic speaking voice was already a matter of legend. Fast Workers had an air of doom about it because the fan press had already made it known that it was Gilbert's last film for Metro -- though he'd be called back later that year at Greta Garbo's request to co-star in Queen Christina. This latest attempt to craft a "new" Gilbert was really like many of the others. The object was to make him seem more virile, as it had been when he played a seaman in Way For a Sailor and a gangster in Gentleman's Fate. The specific idea this time was to make him one of the working class, a riveter helping build skyscrapers and the sort of lout who'd have Robert "Carl Denham" Armstrong as his best pal. If this seemed an unlikely role for Gilbert, given his silent typing as a period romantic, it seems a still more unlikely film to be directed by Tod Browning, at least until a plot asserts itself. What's the director of Dracula and Freaks doing here? If it wasn't a punishment project, the idea probably was that, back in Lon Chaney's heyday, Browning specialized in stories in which jealousy drove men to diabolical extremes. A skyscraper under construction offers plenty of diabolical opportunities, but until it sort of becomes a Browning film Fast Workers is a knuckleheaded misogynist comedy whose title is a double entendre. The riveters work fast, or so they boast, with the ladies as well as the rivets.

The plot is a triangle pitting Gunner Smith (Gilbert) and Bucker Reilly (Armstrong) against each other and gold-digging Mary (Mae Clarke). The comic angle is that Bucker -- you can easily imagine him having a different but rhyming name, and that's probably no accident -- is one of these would-be wise guys who claims to know all about women, only to be whipped by one. He regales his pals on the girders by pantomiming how he'd treat a gold-digger, punting her down the stairs, through the halls and out the door. He and Gunner are eligible prey for gold-diggers because riveters make good money by Depression standards. Gunner, arrested for fighting, can pay a $10 fine without batting an eye. But when he gets too flippant within the judge's hearing the fine is jacked up to fifty bucks, and he can't cover that with his cash in pocket. Who should he call for the extra money but Mary, an acquaintance of his, and who should she have in her room but Bucker, who has just boasted to her that he'd figured out her schemes, only to have her turn the tables? He'd anticipated the sort of sob stories a gold-digger might tell, but she catches him flat-footed by asking tearfully how he knew about the spot she was in. Now comes an emergency call for urgently-needed money, which a conscience-stricken Bucker readily provides. Before long he wants to marry the girl.

Strangely, the avowed cynic Gunner grows jealous. He finally arranges for Bucker to see photographic proof that Mary had been cheating on her with him, and now our poor sap gets a murderous look in his eye. Armstrong seems to devolve before our eyes, somehow growing more stupid looking by the second until he stalks off in a slack-jawed, glassy-eyed passion. This is Tod Browning territory now, only Chaney never had a chance to drop someone off a skyscraper like Armstrong has. The mere shifting of a plank means that Gunner will fall to his doom, but at the last moment Bucker impulsively reaches out to catch his pal. In a scene that echoes through movie history from Saboteur to The Hudsucker Proxy, Gunner clings to the sleeve of Bucker's sweatshirt, which is rapidly coming undone. I guess he should have gotten the double-stitch. Still, he manages to save Gunner by helping him swing out enough so that he lands on a scaffold only a few stories below. The final reconciliation comes in the hospital as a repentant Bucker sends an unrepentant Mary away for good, only to appear instantly smitten with Gunner's nurse, leaving his bedridden buddy to lament that all his broken bones have gone for nothing.

Armstrong's moronic turn as Bucker reminds you of how exceptional his performance as the masterfully desperate Carl Denham was, and his coarseness could only remind audiences of how out-of-place Gilbert seemed in his milieu. If anything, Gilbert's problem here is that he speaks too well; his voice is too clipped and refined for his role in the lack of any backstory explaining a social scion's fall from grace. Despite that handicap, as the film darkens a funny thing happens: Gilbert gets better. No, he doesn't suddenly acquire a working-class voice. What he acquires is real emotion. You hear it in small moments like when he roars in anger at being lowered to ground level only to have to dodge a truck. As he broods over his jealousy during an extended sequence in Atlantic City, Gilbert does some of his best acting in talkies. He does a lot with little, mutely and drunkenly keeping time on a bass drum with the house band, the monotonous beat signalling the buildup to an explosion. Looking at one of his better sound films, The Phantom of Paris, I wondered whether Gilbert needed more arrogant, domineering roles. What he needed even more was passion, and Fast Workers shows that that passion could just as easily and effectively take the form of jealous rage, which he conveys far more convincingly and far less cartoonishly than Armstrong does. The sad part was that I started wondering whether Gilbert was drunk in his best scenes. But I know better to say that he should have worked drunk, because I've seen his miserable last film, The Captain Hates the Sea, where he seems to have been drunk much of the time,and I know that drink killed him soon afterward. Just maybe Browning got something out of Gilbert that none of his other talkie directors managed to elicit. Fast Workers is not a good movie, and must have been a step down from Gilbert's most acclaimed performance in Downstairs, the film he co-wrote (coming soon to the Pre-Code Parade!) but just as it may have justified Metro cutting him, it also proved that Gilbert still had something that he probably had all along, if only the studio knew how, or really wanted to use it.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

DVR Diary: Akira Kurosawa's SCANDAL (1950)

You sometimes hear it said about Akira Kurosawa that, as a Japanese director, he somehow wasn't Japanese enough. Some critics feel they're not getting an authentically Japanese cultural experience from the country's most famous film director, at least when compared to peers like Ozu or Mizoguchi. I suppose Kurosawa was a more cosmopolitan artist. He's arguably one of cinema's great Shakespeareans without having filmed a word the Bard wrote, and he based one of his best modern-dress pictures on an Ed McBain crime novel. A great Russian influence can't be discounted; he adapted stories by Dostoevsky and Gorky and made a film in the USSR when no one else would have him. This Russian influence is problematic, however. The film he made in Russia, Dersu Uzala, is great, but his Dostoevsky film, The Idiot, is one of his worst. Scandal may be worse still, and while it's no literary adaptation, the Dostoevsky influence is partly to blame. If I sum the thing up as half Dostoevsky, half Capracorn, you might consider yourself warned.

Released just months before Rashomon, Scandal is, among other things, Kurosawa's Christmas movie. No holiday movie anthology is really complete without Toshiro Mifune delivering a Christmas tree on his motorcycle or Takashi Shimura drunkenly shouting, in English, "Merry Christmas, Everybody!" But in mentioning all this I get ahead of myself. We should start with Mifune as a young, cranky artist. "I paint the mountains I see inside me!" he explains gruffly when kibitzing peasants note that the mountain he's painting isn't really red. A gentleman as well as an artist, he agrees to take a young woman who's missed her bus to her inn, where he has a room, on his motorcycle. He doesn't know that she's a popular singer (the late Shirley Yamaguchi of Samuel Fuller's House of Bamboo) being trailed by paparazzi before Fellini coined a word to describe them. They stake out the inn until they catch our hero paying a purely friendly visit to the singer. He's just had a bath and drapes his bath towel on the wooden balcony alongside hers. With both people in their bathrobes it's a provocative shot the photogs quickly sell to Amour magazine, an aggressively-advertised scandal sheet that tags Aoye the painter as Saijo the singer's new boyfriend.

Scandal is Capracorn insofar as Aoye is a reluctant, angry sort of "Cinderella Man" who reacts to embarrassing publicity as a Frank Capra hero might. He visits the Amour office, browses through the damning issue, asks who the publisher is, and punches him in the face. His honor isn't satisfied, however, so he does what any Japanese man would do: sue 'em! In this he's encouraged by an unencouraging attorney, Mr. Hiruta (Shimura), who impresses our hero by having a consumptive daughter on the classic 19th century model. Hiruta quickly appears to angle for an out-of-court settlement but is almost immediately flipped by the domineering Amour publisher, who'll feed the shyster's bicycle-race gambling habit if he throws the case and assures the magazine's acquittal. As Hiruta, Shimura takes over the film and sinks it. The lawyer is a Dostoevskian figure, self-consciously, narcissistically abject. "He's not bad, he's just weak," his wise, doomed daughter says of him, and his self-loathing is so nakedly obvious that his betrayal becomes transparent from the beginning. Too dumb to be tricky, he's merely mute and downcast when he should at least be pretending to win the case for his client. Friends and family suspect him immediately but pity more than despise him.

The film's Christmas aspect has inspired suspicion of a further Capra influence but the drunken holiday party Aoye and Hiruta attend seems as much a Dostoevskian occasion at which society's losers look forward to a new year and another chance to get things right while getting plastered for the present. It's indisputably not Capracorn when Hiruta's daughter dies; it may be more Dickens than Dostoevsky in its pathetic quality. This tragedy starts the film's final turn, as at the last possible moment Hiruta mans up, confesses his malpractice and incriminates the publisher. Given the way Shimura had been dominating the picture, I expected a courtroom climax of Hollywood hysterics; surely this was the moment for the actor to go full Barrymore, for the character to orate to redemptive death. Instead, he does the bare minimum to salvage the case, and now that I've thought it over this seems more Capraesque. If the Mifune character is the film's cinderella-man protagonist, than Hiruta is Senator Payne to Mifune's Senator Smith, and his redemption must come in an abrupt confession rather than, say, the fatal aria of A Free Soul. Still, since by this point I wished Hiruta dead it was quite anticlimactic and a leaden finish to what had started as a snappy satire, only to be sabotaged by Kurosawa's ill-digested blend of cultural influences. He probably had to get it out of his system before moving on to his next film and global fame.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

DVR Diary: THE EXILE (1947)

It's hard not to believe that Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Max Ophuls didn't appreciate where they were, which was Universal Studios, where Ophuls, freshly fired by Howard Hughes and still hoping to make his American directorial debut, would film Fairbanks's screenplay -- he received sole credit for a collaboration with Ophuls and Clemence Dane, among others -- as Junior's first film as an independent producer. The Exile is often described as Junior's homage to his swashbuckling father, but it could as easily be seen as the two auteurs' tribute to Universal itself, as if Ophuls + Fairbanks = James Whale. Why, there's a climactic fight in a windmill a la Frankenstein and IMDB confirms my fleeting glimpse of Michael Mark, Little Maria's poor father, in a bit part. Like Ophuls, Whale liked to move the camera around, though his were halting steps compared to the later master. Perhaps most reminiscent of Whale are the obvious backdrop skies of this setbound yet expressionist picture, which is, to be fair, only superficially an homage to Whale or Universal. The auteurs are greater romantics than Whale or any of the Universal crew ever were and put their personal stamp -- presumably Fairbanks's as much as Ophuls's -- on what looks very much like a Universal film, down to the participation of Maria (Cobra Woman) Montez, Nigel (Dr. Watson) Bruce and Henry (Prof. Moriarty) Daniell in key roles. Moreover, it has more heart, or at least a different kind of heart, than any of Fairbanks Senior's pictures did.

You may know The Exile by its alias, Bonnie Prince Charlie, a title that eliminates any uncertainty over who the film is about. Fairbanks and company adapted a novel about the eventual Charles II by Cosmo Hamilton, portraying the prince in Dutch exile late in the Protectorate and wearying of the grim responsibility his remaining loyalists impose upon him. He doesn't want to risk their lives in another attempt to reclaim England by force and appears content to live a simpler life as an assistant innkeeper, having fallen for the innkeeper's daughter (Pauline Crosset aka Rita Corday). The first half of the picture is doubly comic as the regime in England trembles at the thought of Charles' plots while he romps with his new love Katie, and Charles has to help entertain a preposterous imposter (Robert Coote) calling himself Charles Stuart only so he can mooch meals off the fools who trust his letters of credit. Katie herself doesn't know the truth, despite the appearance of the flamboyant Countess Arabella (Montez), who lavishes attentions on humble Charlie.

Things turn deadly serious once the English government's agent, Col. Ingram (Daniell) arrives at the inn. Daniell, one of the great villain actors, is such a baleful presence that Ophuls's gliding camera seems frozen in his presence as Ingram has a guarded, loaded talk with the inn's English employee. The film hits a peak of suspense as Charlie is about to walk away with Ingram none the wiser on his true identity, and the impostor strolls in and affects a royal tantrum at the sight of a Roundhead. For a moment Charlie seems willing to let this idiot get his comeuppance, but once it becomes apparent that Ingram is credulous enough to kill the fool our hero must stop hiding in plain sight. Now the film becomes the sort of swashbuckler Fairbanks Senior would have recognized, with Ophuls sharing credit with "action scene designer" David Sharpe for some bravura sequences climaxing in the windmill fight. Credit is also due to cinematographer Fritz Planer (and two undredited collaborators) for adding an extra expressionist, almost noir aspect to these night battles. While his collaborators arguably are looking backward, Planer shoots as if he wanted this, rather than Anthony Mann's Black Book, to be the first historical costume noir film. It's not at all inappropriate, of course, in a film that in many ways looks like the last Universal film in the studio's classical manner.

Still, neither Fairbanks nor Ophuls really had noir in his heart. The heart of their picture is the romance of the exiled king and the inkeeper's daughter, Charlie realizing that he really could live out his life happily there, only to face unavoidable responsibility once the once-hoped-for summons comes from England. This sort of bittersweetness is Ophuls's meat, and for all that this is Fairbanks's film as producer and writer, it's also clearly an Ophuls film in its sentiments as well as its mobility. The two worked so well together that it's a shame that their film's flop at the box office kept them from teaming up again. Ophuls went on to greater victories, of course, but Fairbanks, whose career grows more interesting the more I see of it, probably was never as good after this. It's a bigger shame that he's remembered more for Sinbad the Sailor, where he more blatantly apes his father, than for The Exile, perhaps his most personal work of art.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

On the Big Screen: FANTASTIC FOUR (2015)

The Marvel Age of Comics, as Stan Lee called it, began in 1961 with his and Jack Kirby's answer to DC Comics's Justice League of America. Everything else you've seen with the Marvel name on it in the past sixteen years, from the beginning of Twentieth Century-Fox's X-Men franchise and including the cycle of films produced by Marvel's own studio, begins with The Fantastic Four. Efforts to put them on film predate this era of movies, and studios are still trying to do them justice, though it arguably becomes more difficult the more these cinematic universes evolve without them. If Marvel ever does get the movie rights back, as so many fans wish, they might be better off putting them in a period piece, possibly set in the time the original comics were published, than making them latecomers to the ongoing MCU party. Goodness knows it's been hard to account for their existence in any other era. Nothing seems to work like the original idea that Reed Richards wanted to get to the moon before the Russians, and before his American handlers, not to mention his spaceship, were ready for him and his motley crew to go. Later generations of creators seemed to think that it should have sufficed for him to be an explorer, but the element of a race that Reed must win seemed to be important at the onset, and one thing Josh Trank gets right, out of very few, is that sense of aggressive impatience. In his already-infamous film, Reed has developed a teleportation device that will allow people to explore a world in another dimension. After a successful test sends a chimp over and brings him back alive, Reed and his collaborators expect to be the first men to cross over. But the boys are all too young -- Trank, apparently following the creators of the alternate-universe Ultimate Fantastic Four comic book, abandons Reed's patriarchal aspect and renders Johnny Storm, originally a token teen, redundant -- and the untrustworthy establishment types want to send astronauts or soldiers across. So in a move worthy of the creator of Chronicle, the found-footage superhero sleeper that earned Trank this perhaps career-destroying gig, Reed and his colleagues get drunk and decide to take a joyride to Planet Zero, leaving girl scientist Sue Storm (the doted-upon Kosovar-American adopted daughter of controversially-colored scientist Franklin Storm and thus envied by Franklin's hothead natural son Johnny) behind to save most of their bacon when the impromptu expedition goes inevitably south. In comics, Reed Richards has always combined impulsiveness with authority; he may be thought of as a careful if not bloodless calculator, but he's always in a position to act on his ideas without obstruction. In this movie Reed has no authority, but that seems to be part of the point.

If any point remains after all the reshoots and Trank's not-quickly-enough retracted repudiation of the finished product, it's a younger generation's struggle for autonomy, their effort to earn the right to control their own destiny. That's not what Stan and Jack's books were about, but it's a suitable topic for a revisionist movie -- and it's not as if Marvel Comics haven't gone revisionist on the FF over the years. I remember a miniseries called Unstable Molecules -- after the material Reed uses to make his team's infinitely-adaptable costumes -- that was done as a period piece in order to take a quite bleak view of the era that birthed the original comics, the repressive 1950s. It could have been seen as an insult to the original comics, but it actually was a fine book that promised sequels whose failure to appear is regrettable. Josh Trank's Fantastic 4 isn't a failure because it's revisionist; nor is it a failure because the studio tampered with Trank's vision, though its interventions most likely turned a mere misfire into a disaster.It may be, however, that The Fantastic Four is an idea that can't sustain very much revisionism. We'd know better if someone had actually made a satisfactory and faithful movie beforehand, but by most scorecards this is the fourth failure in as many tries. Whose fault is that? Is the foundational Marvel Comic possibly untranslatable into movies?

A big part of the problem this time is that Trank and his collaborators, if not his Ultimate precursors, fell into many of the same traps that threaten superhero filmmakers and anyone attempting to "reboot" a venerable pop-culture franchise. First and foremost comes an overdose of origins. In the very first Fantastic Four comic the team's origin is treated as an aside, a flashback to account for the strange people suddenly leaping into action on sight of an awkward-looking smoke signal before their initial adventure resumes. In time, Lee and Kirby would explain that Reed and Ben "The Thing" Grimm were college buddies who fought in World War II together, but those details either weren't worth mentioning in issue one or the creators hadn't thought of them yet. Such indifference is intolerable to our time, when we need detailed accounts of how each hero "begins" because heroism can't be taken for granted today. So now we start with Reed and Ben as children and grade-school classmates, which is all to explain why drunk Reed impulsively calls Ben in to participate in his ill-fated trip to Planet Zero. You'll notice, by the way, how convoluted a process it has become to put the four main characters into position to be transformed, all because no one finds it plausible anymore that a scientist going into space would take, along with his trusty pilot, his completely unqualified girlfriend and her kid brother. Revisionists trade dramatic neatness for plausibility -- in a superhero story! -- and they probably lose something crucial to this comic book's appeal.

But to continue: another problem with today's originitis is the impulse to foreshadow a series' long history and make the origin story more -- ha! -- dramatically coherent by placing key characters at the scene who only emerged later in the original books or episodes. An early example of this was Tim Burton's writers making the Joker, in his earlier, naturally-pigmented state, the murderer of Batman's parents. A later example is the Gotham TV show making the future Catwoman a witness to the murder. For the Fantastic Four, what you do is involve Doctor Doom in the origin story as much as possible. Doom wasn't exactly a latecomer, making his debut in the fourth issue, and it would be understandable for a tentpole film project to lead with the franchise's strongest villain. But why embed him in the origin? In this film Victor Von Doom (the filmmakers retreated from an announced plan to give him a different civilian name) is a former employee of Franklin Storm working along lines similar to Reed's and brought back to help shepherd the project to fruition -- and he's supposed to have a thing for Sue. Modern writers apparently believe such extra details necessary to establish arch-enmity, as if Doom's irrepressible itch for world conquest, and a jealousy of Reed shown to predate the origin incident, wouldn't take care of that. But since this film is nothing but origin, if you want a supervillain in it he has to be part of the origin. So Victor is one of the drunken crew on the jaunt to Planet Zero, where he in seeming death acquires the superpowers that have never been necessary to one of comics' greatest mad scientists, as well as a motivation -- to prevent the new world from exploitation by humans -- that seems pretty miserable in comparison to the comics character's epic ambitions. Given how this all plays out, there's really no good reason for this character to be Doctor Doom except for the benefit of name recognition. By now FF fans are impatient to see any other of the series' deep roster of villains, so why not put one of them into the origin story and save Doom as your big selling point for your sequel a la The Dark Knight? The reason seems to be that despite all the self-conscious revisionism at work, the writers were really running on origin-story autopilot, until everyone started fighting over the controls and the plane went down.

The actors are mostly helpless passengers. Many of them have quite impressive recent credits that make their work here deeply disappointing. Kate Mara has no personality apart from an intellectual quirk -- Sue's expertise in pattern analysis allows her to track down a fugitive Reed even though his new ability to change his appearance presumably made it impossible to discover a pattern -- and her status as Daddy's Girl leaves her out of the youth-rebellion aspect of the story. Michael B. Jordan, meanwhile, has nothing but youthful rebellion going for him, Johnny being willing to become a living weapon, apparently, in order to stick it to Dad. Miles Teller made his name in a picture that was stolen from him and his standing as lead character, as Reed, is no more secure here. You may recognize Toby Kebbell's eyes and mouth as those of Koba, the evil chimp who steals Dawn of the Planet of the Apes from motion-capture master Andy Serkis. You won't recognize them once his Victor Von Doom is transformed into an emotionless, expressionless living mask. Jack Kirby and his successors could always cheat and make Doom's armored face plate (see also Iron Man) more expressive than it really could be, but the latest movie Doom is an all-too-honest debacle.

I've saved the worst for last: the multiply-misguided casting of Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm. It's revisionist, I guess, to have Ben, a football star before he became a pilot and superhero, be a runt regularly clobbered by an abusive older brother. You can have some nice role reversal once Ben becomes a giant rock monster and super soldier, but the real failure with Ben is the ultimate failure of the whole film -- leaving aside the ineptitudes of the re-shot action climax. The Thing embodies the unique tone that made Marvel so daringly different in the Silver Age of Comics. Like Conan the Barbarian, Ben Grimm is a man (or monster) of gigantic melancholy and gigantic mirth. Fairly quickly, in one of Lee and Kirby's miracles of inspiration, Ben evolved from self-pitying grotesque into the series' comic relief, if not its heart and soul. At first feared, he was soon adored by the public, the irreconcilables of Yancy Street always excepted. He might occasionally lapse into an existential funk, but most of the time he was the Ever-Lovin' Blue-Eyed Thing, the Idol of Millions. Like Spider-Man, the Thing echoed Stan Lee's inimitable narrative voice that managed to operate in two registers simultaneously, at once self-important and self-mocking. Is it fair to condemn Bell and Trank for inflicting upon us an utterly humorless Ben Grimm? In their defense it can be repeated that the Thing reached his definitive form, not only in content but in form as Kirby made him rockier and somehow cuter looking, only over time, and that just as he wasn't this way at the end of the first issue he shouldn't be expected to be that way by the end of this latest first movie. But just as writers want to encompass as much of the work of decades in two hours, why shouldn't we expect the first film to deliver the characters to us in their definitive forms by the time it's done? Writers may be obsessed with origins, but I doubt that characters' fans really want to see them in their earliest forms, especially when they're as uninspiring as this immature, introverted, bloodless quartet. Done wrong, an origin story is like showing people how sausage is made, and together Trank and Fox probably have killed most people's appetite for another FF movie, no matter how much some still wish that Marvel would make one themselves, for many years to come.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

GOLD (2013)

We've actually seen quite a few German westerns, so the novelty of Thomas Arslan's film is that it's a German northwestern, an exploration of the Klondike rather than a Karl May-inspired romp among the noble savages. Gold (the English word is the official German title) has inspired many comparisons with one of the best American westerns of the still-young century, Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff. In part that's because Gold, too, has a female protagonist, but it may also be because some viewers ask, "Is that it?" at the end. Gold is no more about reaching one's destination than Meek's Cutoff was, but it's both more picturesque, within its budgetary limitations, and somewhat more existential than the American film. The poster art you see here has whitened the landscape through which the characters ride to better match the lingering popular imagination of the Klondike, but in the movie itself browns and greens prevail and the action takes place in warmer weather than we're used to seeing in this particular subgenre. If the absence of winter disappoints you you can always wait for The Hateful Eight, but Arslan and cinematographer Patrick Orth do nicely by their British Columbia locations, emphasizing wilderness rather than winter. There's no effort, as in Meek's Cutoff, to obscure the epic sweep of the landscape, but as in the Reichardt film a little band of increasingly desperate people of increasingly questionable competence subordinate the landscape to a human scale.

 
By the 1890s adventurers like Emily can reach the frontier's edge by train.
From there, things look more generically western, albeit further north.

 

Arslan follows a small group of German immigrants who've gathered for an expedition to the gold fields organized by Wilhelm Laser (Peter Kurth), an irrepressibly European figure who inspires little confidence, though his hired man Carl Boehmer (Marko Mandic) is more acclimated and more promising. A latecomer to the group is, unexpectedly, a single woman, Emily Meyer (Nina Hoss). More than the others, she seems to be going for the sake of going, more the classic western loner than any of the others. Boehmer, however, is another western archetype, the man with a past. Evocative of John Wayne in Stagecoach, he's a justified killer who has unfinished business, whether he likes it or not, with his enemies.
 




Things fall apart fairly rapidly once it becomes clear that Laser is a con man. Compared to other characters he gets off easy, if only because Emily rescues him from a sunrise lynching. Others drop out or die. One man (Lars Rudolph) most likely does both; driven mad by the horrors he sees, he strips naked and runs off alone. By that point, with Laser gone and another self-appointed leader done in by blundering into a bear trap, only Emily and Boehmer are left. Through luck more than anything else they end up in an outpost of civilization, only to find Boehmer's reckoning waiting for him.


Emily arrives alone and departs alone. Does she go on out of greed, for the sake of another, or is her urge to press on much different than the mania that sent her onetime partner running naked into the deep woods? For a film called Gold, this film isn't really about greed once the scheming Laser is out of it. A stubborn restlessness is the prevailing spirit, a determination to go one's own way, often against good advice, for the satisfaction of having chosen it oneself. The party seems doomed to self-destruction. They're the sort who are warned against doing something stupid and almost immediately walk into disaster. Boehmer seems more competent and thoughtful, and Emily less aggressively reckless, than the rest, but their mere presence in this misguided band seems to signal that something's wrong with them, too. Nina Hoss plays Emily with a disquieting stoicism that barely hints at deeper motives for her relentless quest. When she takes leave of us, her perseverance can be seen with equal fairness as heroic or foolhardy, or as both in equal measure. To writer-director Arslan's credit, he recognizes in Emily an enigma that can't be reduced to the neatness of a romantic character arc or resolved in violent catharsis. That may leave Gold's ending as unsatisfying to some as the in medias res finish of Meek's Cutoff. But by disdaining conventional dramatics both films may leave us truer portraits of the pioneers and fortune seekers that populated a continent.