Friday, November 27, 2015


Like the buffalo and the Native Americans, The Daughter of Dawn was nearly lost. An independent production of the Texas Film Company, this all-Indian cast film had few known showings before disappearing for decades. Now you can stream it on Netflix, and now that the film is much closer in time to the epoch it portrays than it is to our own it probably looks more like an authentic historical document, simply by virtue of age and wear, than it may have to whoever saw it 95 years ago. Back then, the film's cornier aspects may have stood out more. While they still stand out now, they matter less than the idea that here is a movie of Indians hunting buffalo in which the actors probably had living knowledge of how it was done. Daughter of Dawn puts us one degree of separation from the legendary Old West; two of its main actors were children of the famous Comanche chief Quanah Parker. Its historical value is indisputably, almost immeasurably greater than its aesthetic value.

Norbert Myles and Richard Banks's scenario is self-consciously archetypal in a generic way. He's less interested in a narrative grounded in the authentic details and rhythm of Native life than in "the eternal triangle" that could appear anywhere, at any time. This time it's a triangle of a woman and two men. The woman is our title character (Esther Labarre), named for the time of her birth but in fact the daughter of a Kiowa chief. She has two suitors. One, Black Wolf (Jack Sankadota), is rich in goods. The other, White Eagle (White Parker) is a hunk compared to the pot-bellied Black Wolf. White Eagle is also a good citizen; he locates a buffalo herd and leads the Kiowas on a successful hunt that highlights the picture. The chief knows that Black Wolf can offer more for his daughter but he also respects her opinion and her emotions. Knowing her preference for White Eagle, the chief decides to let a trial of courage decide her future.

Black Wolf and White Eagle are to jump off a cliff. It's more steep than high but it promises a rough landing. Whoever survives will win the Daughter of Dawn. I'd hate to think any actual tribe settled such disputes that way, but no one claimed that this is an anthropological text. Anyway, both men survive, but Black Wolf survives by cowering on a ledge while White Eagle nobly takes his lumps all the way down. He'll be fine, while Black Wolf is shamed out of the tribe. On the rebound, he finally accepts the loyalty of Red Wing (Wanada Parker), who's been pining inexplicably for this lout through the whole picture and now volunteers to share his exile.

Rather than take his punishment like a man, Black Wolf turns traitor, betraying the Kiowas to this film's bad guys, the Comanches. He shows them the way to the Kiowa village, promising them horses and women, so long as he gets Daughter of Dawn. To cut to the chase, a recovered White Eagle leads the rescue mission, setting up a final showdown with Black Wolf. This climactic fight is reasonably well staged for 1920, Myles gradually moving closer, cut by cut, from long shot to close-up. But he follows it with a corny, clunky anticlimax as Red Wing knifes herself out of implausible grief for this dead Bluto of the Kiowas and an intertitle comments: "Constancy, thy name is Red Wing."


As a Native critic might have said, "Ugh." But while the story is the stuff of pulp fiction, with apologies to pulp fiction, Daughter of Dawn is fascinating even more as a piece of cinematic history than as a relic of Native folkways. For silent film buffs there's inherent drama to every rediscovery, and Daughter deserves its place on the National Film Registry (Class of 2013) regardless of its dramatic limitations. With so many major-studio Hollywood pictures from the silent era still missing or unlikely to be found, it's a wonder that an outlier project like this one can be seen so easily today, and that shouldn't be taken for granted.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015


The poster above is an accurate representation of the protagonist of Bobby Kendall's silent film. On film, the alien robot is a charmingly preposterous creation. He's really no more than a cardboard frame built on top of a remote-control toy truck, with a control panel painted or drawn on his torso and a permanent expression of open-mouthed anxiety drawn onto his red-eyed face. His arms look useless, and when he uses them to touch or manipulate things, Kendall resorts to POV shots in which the arms are clearly being held in the director's hands. It's not to be taken seriously, after all, and the robot's abject simplicity makes him almost a 21st century version of the tramps and pasty-faced clowns of a century ago. He's a sign of Kendall's intentions, which are not, as far as I can tell, to make science fiction, but to get back to the essence of moviemaking. Silent films are about images and movement, and boy, does this film move.

In slightly less than an hour, Kendall follows his little robot from his crash site through the Collar City known as the Home of Uncle Sam, the place of my birth and my daily work. In the first section, "Terror," the robot struggles to find an exit from a post-industrial wasteland. In the second, "Wonder," he makes it into the city proper, exploring downtown Troy during one Saturday's outdoor farmer's market. In "Exploration" he tries to make contact with the planet's indigenous life, primarily an indifferent cat, and takes a treacherous trip through some parkland. In the final section, "Love/Freedom," he discovers the possibility of companionship and appears to find fulfillment as a child's toy.

The robot is Kendall's only special effect, but his dogged mobility brings this micro-budgeted film to life. Much of the film consists of long tracking shots following the robot as he scoots down roads of varying smoothness. These are impressive compositions, and they only get more so when the robot reaches populated areas. The Farmers' Market sequence is a modest tour de force as Kendall follows the robot through a crowded Monument Square and environs, leaving you wondering how the little guy doesn't get stepped on, or how no one ever sued Kendall for tripping over the thing. It takes you back a little to the early days of silent comedy when Mack Sennett's troupe would set up shop at public events and make comedy wherever they might find it. There aren't really any gags in Alien Robot, but it's still a sincere throwback to that century-old spirit. That comes through in the final sequence, when the robot, after watching two people enjoy a railyard picnic, befriends a little girl playing alone in her yard. There's something sentimental if not corny to this courtship, as the girl guides the robot with her little stick and finally does a happy dance as he circles elegantly around her. The closing high-five is a more modern touch, of course.

If the robot is in some ways a 21st century silent clown, in another way he's a humble embodiment of cinema itself. Seeing Troy from ankle-level and on the move from the robot's perspective must be like seeing things through a movie camera for the first time; the artifice automatically changing what we see as well as how we see it. Kendall has a few more tricks up his sleeve than tracking shots; like a good silent director he's also adept at montage, which he uses to establish the first terrifying, then wondrous strangeness of the cityscape. But when he's following the robot through the city he arrives at something like pure cinema. And on top of that, like many a silent film Alien Robot has an original score, which I was lucky to hear performed live by the band Lastdayshining, including Kendall. The score elevates the film, underscoring its often ecstatic sense of discovery and wonder. The combined effect is more artistry than amateurism -- which is more than I can say for that poster -- reminding us of what can still be done with limited resources and an understanding that cinema itself is a special effect. I don't want to exaggerate the film's virtues, but it definitely deserves a lot of appreciation, just as Bobby Kendall deserves encouragement in his future ventures.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

On the Big Screen: THE GOLDEN BED (1925)

Cecil B. De Mille is identified with a certain kind of movie spectacle exemplified by his second version of The Ten Commandments (1925), now the oldest movie regularly shown on network television. Back when he made the first version, in 1923, he had a different reputation. In both phases of his long career he was widely perceived as a vulgarian, but while late De Mille, the director remembered today, is identified with historical or Biblical spectacle, and with reverence disguising sex, violence or overall sleaziness, early De Mille -- it's really middle De Mille, following a period where he was perceived as a pioneer cinematic artist -- goes straight to the sleaziness, but with style. In the early to mid 1920s a De Mille picture meant scandalous behavior among the opulent classes. Increasingly he covered his preoccupations with a veneer of archetypal ambition. His big gimmick was to interrupt his modern sex stories with interludes set in olden times to illustrate his themes more vividly. The 1923 Ten Commandments was different only insofar as the Moses material went into a long prologue, after which came a modern story in which the penalties for violating the commandments were illustrated with a winking earnestness. The Golden Bed comes at the end of this phase of De Mille's career -- it marked the end of his first stay at Paramount Pictures before he became an independent studio head -- and is perfunctory in its gimmickry. An intertitle equates the film's belle fatale with the legendary Lorelei and De Mille dutifully demonstrates by showing us a possibly-nude maiden urging a shipwrecked sailor to climb up out of a storm-tossed sea and onto her rock. The shot lasts less than a minute and then it's on with the show. There are plenty of characteristic De Mille moments yet to come, but Golden Bed strikes an overall tone that seems atypical of the great showman, and it's unclear whether audiences or reviewers -- one contemporary called it De Mille's worst film -- knew what to make of it. Since its release it's been largely forgotten and unseen. The organizers of the De Mille festival at the Madison Theater in Albany called their showing a world premiere of a George Eastman House restoration of the picture, and chief organizer Michael V. Butler put a distinctive stamp on it by compiling, with a collaborator, a new score that proved surprisingly effective given its dependence on Soviet composers, above all Khachaturian and in particular his Spartacus ballet music. But if it worked for Caligula it was certainly going to work for De Mille. It was still a strange juxtaposition since Golden Bed itself is very much a product of its own time and place, De Mille and his regular writer Jeanie MacPherson tapping into American literary influences above and beyond the Wallace Irwin source novel. Call it De Mille's Magnificent Ambersons and you may get the idea.

The Golden Bed is about the fall of an American family and how they nearly take a rising family with them. In Atlanta live the increasingly shabby yet ever genteel Peakes and the aspiring hardscrabble Holtzes. Papa Peake (Henry B. Walthall of Birth of a Nation fame) was bred to spend money but not to earn it, a title tells us. He's staked his family's future on his beautiful, spoiled, blonde daughter Flora Lee (Lillian Rich), while neglecting still-pretty but definitely second-best Margaret (Vera Reynolds). Flora has been bred to land a rich husband; early proof of her talent is the way young Admah Holtz, a candymaker's son (who grows up into Rod La Rocque) will give Flora free peppermints while making Margaret pay. As Papa patiently explains to a jealous Margaret, when Flora lands the right husband there'll be candy for everybody. Everything works out just in time; Flora lands a European aristocrat and Papa hosts the wedding the same day that the bank repossesses his furniture. As it is, Margaret still has to go out into the world and get a job. She goes to work for Admah, who has inherited the store and the name of "Candy" Holtz. Margaret hits the ground running with ideas for Admah to spruce up his slovenly shop, e.g., take the used flypaper off the candy shelves. Admah appreciates her entrepreneurial sense but is almost cruelly oblivious to the way Margaret plainly pines for him. He jokingly orders her to leave by the employees' back entrance after hiring her, not realizing how humiliating the moment is for her, though she pluckily jokes about noblesse oblige. Worse, he'd gone to Flora's wedding and hovered at the margins like a neglected puppy, except that Flora didn't neglect him. She saved him a flower from her bouquet and threw it to him while her new hubby wasn't looking. He still has a chance.

Now that Margaret has civilized the place and Admah isn't pulling taffy in the shop window anymore, the Candy Holtz business picks up. With Margaret as his conscience Admah rejects schemes to adulterate his produce by using sugar substitutes. As they condemn Atlanta to Type 2 diabetes, Flora is abruptly widowed during an Alpine vacation when her hubby and a rival with whom she'd started an affair fight their way off a cliff. I guess you can call that a De Mille touch, down to a primitive version of the Saboteur effect as the two men take the plunge. Now that Flora's free again, not to mention left out of hubby's will "for some reason," Margaret doesn't have a chance with Admah. Flora becomes Flora Holtz virtually by fait accompli and Margaret practically vanishes from the picture for an hour. Candy Holtz has achieved his dream, but he's also cut his own throat. Like father, like daughter; Flora lives to spend and is determined to rule Atlanta society, even if Admah can't really afford it. When she loses her bid to be hostess of the Peachtree Ball, she browbeats Admah into hosting a rival ball, playing on his class insecurity by blaming his working-class background for her defeat. Admah has been warned by his banker, whose wife won the right to host the ball, that he'll get no more credit if he continues his extravagance, but he blows practically all of his latest $40,000 loan on staging an insane candy-themed ball. This is the true De Millean showstopper, a nutty (and chocolatey!) masterpiece of demented set design (topic for future discussion; De Mille's true heir in our time is Tim Burton) garnished with hostesses in costumes made of candy -- that is to say, edible costumes. C.B. doesn't mean that in a purely theoretical sense, either. Censors reportedly went nuts over scenes of men nibbling near sensitive areas on those outfits. So which ball would you go to? Most of Atlanta society agreed with you, but Admah and Flora's moment of triumph is about to turn to ashes like many Cinderella stories. You see, after all that party planning Admah is running on fumes and Flora's dressmaker won't let her have her party gown until she pays her back bills. In a Dreiserian moment of decision (read Sister Carrie, or read about it if you're in a hurry), Admah takes the day's sales receipts out of a safe to pay the dressmaker, and that, children, is what we call embezzlement. Oh, and Flora is practically cheating under his nose with social butterfly Bunny (a young Warner Baxter). With Flora walking out on him and the police closing in, Admah may think the world has turned against him but this is really a moment of self-destruction, perfectly illustrated by De Mille in what should be this film's signature shot. In a self-parody of Samson and Delilah a quarter-century in advance, an enraged, self-pitying Admah brings a full-sized candy gazebo crashing down behind him by pushing the pillars apart. Next on his schedule: five years in prison.

It would be too brutal if the film ended here, so we get a final act in which Flora is punished and Admah is reformed through labor, while Margaret reopens the original Candy Holtz store and proves herself a successful businesswoman in her own right. This sets up a sad, almost chilling emotional climax that anticipates not only Orson Welles's Maginificent Ambersons but the mad pathos of southern gothic literature. In short, Bunny kicks Flora to the curb at the first opportunity, and with her youth gone and her looks going its only downhill for her. On the day Admah is released from prison a threadbare, moribund Flora makes her way to the old Peake mansion, which is now a boarding house. She has a poignant reunion with her old pet monkey, now working for an organ grinder -- I could write a whole post on the monkey as her totem animal going back to a childhood doll, the way its mischief at the Candy Holtz store embodies Flora's destructive rivalry with Margaret, and whether the monkey's name, Louella, is a dig at Parsons the gossip columnist -- before the new mistress of the house reluctantly lets her tour the place. How far Flora has fallen is hard to say; she may be homeless, but there's no hint of prostitution, and I might have found her comeuppance excessive except that I know that Hollywood actresses actually did fall that far if not further. Anyway, Flora's old Golden Bed is still in its old place -- I should explain that Admah had bought the house for her, and presumably refurnished it, as a wedding present -- but its crowning swan's head is broken and tied to the bed, upside-down, with wire. Meanwhile, as I mentioned, Admah is getting out of prison, and Margaret has put together a nice dinner to welcome him back. But he -- can't -- let -- go! Some morbid instinct draws him, too, to the boarding house, where he finds you-know-who in the Golden Bed. She recognizes him, but seems to have forgotten, in her decrepitude, that she and the "Candy Man" had been married. You'd like to think that her calling out for Bunny in her last moments would be the ultimate deal-breaker, but I think she actually has to die before Admah will finally quit her. Of course, Margaret has no clue about this nearby deathwatch and sadly falls asleep at an untouched dinner table. But the film does us the kindness of closing on a things-could-yet-be-worse note. After all, neither Admah nor Margaret commits suicide. Instead, he finally shows up about twelve hours late, and "your sister died in my arms" proves a satisfactory excuse. The Golden Bed actually closes on a note of bittersweet perseverance as the two survivors watch a construction crew reporting for work across the street and realize that the only thing to do is start over.

I feel justified in giving a detailed synopsis because most of you are never going to see this film. I hope the synopsis conveys that you're missing out on something because Golden Bed packs a wallop that's probably unexpected in a Cecil B. De Mille movie. It's as anti-romantic a movie as C.B. ever made while retaining considerable emotional power. In fact, it's an all-out attack on a certain romanticism, in movies and the wider culture, that Walthall, D. W. Griffith's Little Colonel, may have purposefully symbolized. Golden Bed is a vindication of bourgeois virtues, as forgotten by Admah but learned under pressure by Margaret, against an aristocratic romanticism of leisure and conspicuous consumption that Flora Peake was shaped to embody and Admah Holtz could not help idolizing. Knowing that Flora was consciously shaped by her father into the creature she becomes justifies the pathos of her wretched end if we realize that by spoiling her, her father victimized her while guaranteeing the victimization of others. Amid the often outlandish set design there's surprising seriousness of purpose, or else an on-the-nose satiric impulse. But whatever message you take from it, artistically Golden Bed demonstrates how good a visual storyteller De Mille was in the silent era. We'll have a chance shortly to discuss his struggles in early talkies, but when he didn't have to worry about staging dialogue the director was, on this evidence, quite good at getting emotions on screen and finding the right images to keep the story moving and its meaning plain. His three lead actors deserve a lot of the credit. Earlier this year Rod La Rocque impressed me as the heroic idiot in The Log of the Jasper B., and now I'm more impressed by his range. Neither Lillian Rich nor Vera Reynolds had much of a career, so maybe C.B. does deserve more credit with them, but Reynolds especially is very good and seems to have deserved better than she got. So does this film; I consider myself lucky to have seen it.

Friday, November 20, 2015

My vow of silents

Usually I don't preview my viewing or reviewing plans here but I found that pun too good (?) to waste. Be informed, therefore, that up through the Thanksgiving holiday, circumstances permitting, I'll be taking a look here at a diverse range of silent movies viewed in various places. From Netflix comes The Daughter of Dawn, a recently rediscovered 1920 film shot with a Native American cast. From Troy, New York comes a new silent sci-fi featurette, When An Alien Robot Crash-Lands in Troy, NY, which I'll be seeing tonight with live musical accompaniment. Tomorrow takes me to the Madison Theater in Albany, where a Cecil B. De Mille festival climaxes with the "world premiere" showing of a George Eastman House restoration, with a new musical score, of the great showman's long-obscure 1925 film The Golden Bed. In addition to all these, I DVR-ed some early Douglas Fairbanks Sr. pictures off Turner Classic Movies last night and may have something to say about those in time. Stay tuned as the reviews come in....

Monday, November 16, 2015

Pre-Code Parade: CRACKED NUTS (1931)

Most people who watch the Marx Bros.' Duck Soup (1933) probably suppose it to be a one-of-a-kind movie. But back in Pre-Code days, during the heyday of the "nut" comics who descended on Hollywood from the Broadway and vaudeville stage, it was a natural if not commonplace idea that putting the nuts in charge of a country was funny. Duck Soup, if anything, represents the end or, if you prefer, the culmination of this comedy subgenre. Before that, you had Million Dollar Legs, in which W. C. Fields ruled a nation by virtue of physical strength and wrestling prowess. And before that, you had Cracked Nuts, easily the least remembered of such films. The main reason for that is that its starring team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, once arguably more popular than the Marxes, have been forgotten since Woolsey's premature death in 1938. They certainly were more prolific; after earning movie stardom with their supporting roles in the 1929 musical Rio Rita, the team starred in twenty features over the next eight years. It's something you wonder about, because their comedy hasn't aged well, which is the other main reason that Cracked Nuts is forgotten. They were a phenomenon of early talkies, when there was still some novelty to the fast talk and double talk the nut comics specialized in. Beyond that, something is lost now that may never have been there. Wheeler is the juvenile of the group, the amiable sap, the one more likely to have a romantic interest. Woolsey is the huckster, the guy in the glasses with the cigar who looks and sounds like a caricature of George Burns. In Cracked Nuts, directed by Edward Cline, Wheeler is a wastrel heir to a fortune desperately courting a girlfriend (frequent co-star Dorothy Lee) guarded by her intimidating aunt (Edna May Oliver), and also desperate to prove himself by investing his remaining wealth in some worthy project. He advertises his readiness to invest and is answered by dissident exiles from the South American kingdom of El Dorania. Led by smooth talking Boris (Karloff, months before Frankenstein's release), they convince Wheeler to "buy" their revolution, and promise to install him as the realm's new ruler. I don't know how common it was for Wheeler and Woolsey to play autonomous characters, but taking this approach in Cracked Nuts establishes Wheeler as a conventional, perhaps sympathetic sad-sack comic pining for his dream girl. But the business of him sneaking into Lee's apartment and hiding in Oliver's shower, fully clothed and armed with an umbrella, didn't really impress me. Oliver's assessment of the character as a hopeless idiot did not seem unfair.

Meanwhile, unknown to Boris and the other conspirators, events in El Dorania have overtaken their plans. The king has been overthrown peacefully, having surrendered his sovereignty at a casino craps table to an American gambler (Woolsey). The stage is set for a mock-epic war of comics, who prove to be old buddies but whose claims to power are, of course, irreconcilable. Add to this the complication that Boris's conspirators and a powerful general at home intend to use whoever wins as a figurehead, and are willing to kill both once their usefulness expires, and add to that that Wheeler's girl and her aunt have followed him to El Dornaia, and he must still prove himself to them.

Why doesn't it work? More correctly, why doesn't it work now? Then, Cracked Nuts was a hit and made a profit for RKO, while Duck Soup notoriously flopped and put the Marxes' future in movies in jeopardy. With more historical context to work with, we can guess that the Marx film was seen as yet another in a soon-tiresome mythical kingdom genre that was fresher two years earlier. And that's all I've got, because I really can't imagine how anyone found Cracked Nuts funnier than Duck Soup. The Wheeler-Woolsey picture is inferior on every level. One reason why they haven't endured is that their comic personalities are shallow. The Marxes transformed themselves into iconic characters, each with a broad, intense, easily grasped persona. With Robert Woolsey in particular, you never see anything but a vaudeville comic doing his shtick. There's a fatal vibe of self-amusement when he and Wheeler lapse into practiced patter, like the scene when they find seemingly limitless ways to use the word "well" in a sentence, while the Marxes' comedy crackles with sibling rivalry and better writing. Wheeler and Woolsey never seem to do more than tell jokes self-consciously, except when Wheeler gets to sing and dance. They seem like rough drafts of better future comedians, never more so than a scene in which they compare war strategies while contemplating a map of El Dorania. The accursed nation has landmarks named "Which" and "What," among other things, and Woolsey's attempt to explain it all to Wheeler plays like a very rough draft of Abbott & Costello's "Who's On First."

Nor can Cline and his writers match the epic absurdity achieved by Leo McCarey and the Duck Soup writing team. There's no sense of larger satire here, nothing like the "We're Going to War" number or the surreal take on war-movie cliches in the Marx film. The climax of Cracked Nuts is the attempted execution of Woolsey by aerial bombing, with an unbilled, clean-shaven Ben Turpin, the cross-eyed man himself, piloting the death plane. As in many sound comedies, Turpin, apparently not trusted with dialogue, is reduced to a cameo turn in which his face is the one and only joke. The big joke of the scene is that Woolsey sneers at his fate, Wheeler having told him that he'd defused the bombs in advance, and refuses to move from his throne of doom even after live bombs start dropping. Years before, Cline had worked on Buster Keaton's early short subjects, but you wouldn't guess that from what you see here. Only a wordless sequence at the start of the picture with Wheeler waiting for an elevator hints at Cline's mighty heritage. Consider who he was working with, however. I've liked at least one Wheeler-Woolsey that I've seen, but that remains the exception. Watching them here, doing a mythical-kingdom bit, puts them head-to-head with the Marx Bros, and for that reason it also puts them in their place, however inconspicuous, for posterity.

Saturday, November 14, 2015


Michel Houellebecq may be the most controversial novelist in France today, and perhaps the most popular French novelist abroad right now. There was a cartoon of Houellebecq -- whom Guillaume Nicloux's film proves to be a kind of cartoon in the flesh -- on the cover of Charlie Hebdo magazine the week its editorial staff was massacred by terrorists last January. Houellebecq -- I guess you pronounce it something like "Ool-beck" -- had just published his latest novel, Soumission. Translated into English as Submission this fall, the novel tells of the largely peaceful Islamization of France. Some time before, the author had been prosecuted for calling Islam the stupidest of religions. Given this context, the surprising thing about The Kidnapping, released nearly a year before the massacre, is that Islam factors into the story not at all.

I've read three of Houellebecq's novels and look forward to reading Submission. Judging from the novels, you might imagine the novelist to be some intense degenerate. Many of the novels are pornographically satirical, the blatancy of the sex being part of Houellebecq's argument against the increasing commodification and increased competitiveness of every aspect of life. The advance word on Submission suggests that it's a summation of some of his career themes, especially a presumed mass yearning for a guaranteed place in the world, a refuge from competition, that Islam, among other forces, promises to fulfill. I'm actually not surprised to see Houellebecq, as imagined with his obvious cooperation by writer-director Nicloux, as an R. Crumb sort of figure, an awkward schlub seething on the inside, and on top of that a mushmouthed mumbler whom everyone asks to repeat himself. I've never seen Houellebecq give a genuine interview so I can't say to what extent he caricatures himself here, but I think, based on my incomplete knowledge of his work, that Nicloux does a good job making the author into something like a character from one of his own novels.

That doll is a perfect symbol of the banality of this particular evil

After some purposefully boring scenes of the author at home discussing redecorating, among other matters, Nicloux gets to work getting Houellebecq kidnapped. The kidnappers are a gang of three: a fat guy, a mixed martial artist and the other guy. One of them is a Roma who used to live in Israel. They're all quite aware of his celebrity; they expect a big ransom, after all, even though Houellebecq is hard-pressed to imagine who'd pay for him. One of them read his non-fiction book about H. P. Lovecraft and almost gets into a fight with him when Houellebecq denies writing that he'd purchased a pillow that had belonged to Lovecraft and had traces of his saliva. Another asks the sometime poet about poetry, and one reads him a poem he'd won an award for in school days. The fighter is eager to teach Houellebecq about MMA and the author is interested enough to learn some moves. In one of the funniest scenes he practices with the fat guy and nearly chokes him out for real despite his victim's urgent tapping out, the meaning of which Houellebecq doesn't understand at first.



Houellebecq is stashed in the home of one of the gang's parents, and the banality of his guest-room prison is a joke in its own right. The novelist soon proves himself a needy character, though the kidnappers have themselves to blame because they won't let him keep a lighter. They learn not to let him drink too much; we get hints that Houellebecq can be a mean drunk. This extended criminal family really treats their captive pretty well, even providing him with a prostitue, whom he immediately falls for. Apart from not having the lighter whenever he wants it, Houellebecq really seems to enjoy the experience, to the extent that he can enjoy anything. He gets to observe a bunch of interesting new people and, as noted, he gets waited on hand and foot. The Kidnapping becomes a kind of self-satire if you get that this relatively-comfortable captivity is the sort of submission -- some might see it as a renunciation of responsibility -- that Houellebecq's characters so often seem to long for. The punch line comes after the ransom is paid -- by an attorney representing someone he refuses to identify, though Houellebecq seems to recognize him as lawyer for suspected terrorists -- when our hero, having noticed that the family has a Polish handyman living in a storage container in their yard, notices a second container and proposes moving in. But that isn't even the final punch line. The last one is more enigmatic. After blindfolding Houellebecq and driving him out on the highway, the fat kidnapper gives him his car as his "cut" for being such a cooperative hostage. Houellebecq promptly takes him for a ride, quickly pushing the speedometer to over 250 km per hour as the erstwhile kidnapper starts to sweat. The film ends here, allowing us to wonder whether this is just a little revenge on Houellebecq's part or a hint that the novelist all along has been a more dangerous character than his captors.

It's hard to recommend The Kidnapping to general audiences despite my enjoyment of it because your enjoyment depends unavoidably on how much you know about Michel Houellebecq. So let me recommend some novels by the man, particularly The Elementary Particles and Platform. Those two should give you a sufficient idea of the man to appreciate the joke he and Nicloux are playing on himself and us.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015


The 1950s were the golden age of the Hollywood western, marked by the flourishing of the "adult" or "psychological" western and the emergence of such master genre auteurs as Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher and Delmer Daves. At the same time, a folkloric element to the genre persisted, finding expression in the title ballads that occasionally crowned but more often marred western movies. The three leading directors mostly avoided this balladic imperative (exceptions include Mann's Man From Laramie and Boetticher's Seven Men From Now) but the blockbuster success of both Fred Zinnemann's High Noon and Dmitri Tiomkin's title ballad convinced many a producer that ballads were essential to the western genre. The balladic imperative, an arguable inheritance from singing-cowboy films which in retrospect makes many films sound more corny than they really are, predates High Noon. At the start of the decade, producer-director Irving Allen conceived a balladic western with a sung-through narration. Slaughter Trail isn't quite a musical -- characters never "burst into song" and the major characters never sing -- but music is its life blood. Pop music is in its DNA. RKO, the studio that distributed Allen's film, hoped to exploit the participation as actor, singer and songwriter of Terry Gilkyson, who had recently written a hit song, "The Cry of the Wild Goose," that had been popularized by Frankie Laine, whose earlier hit "Mule Train" probably helped inspire many title ballads in the coming decade. However, Gilkyson did not write Slaughter Trail's title ballad, also known as "Hoofbeat Serenade." It's a tune that actually grows on you once you realize that Allen is going to stick with it all the way. Its refrain, as I remember it -- "You can only hear the sound/Of the hoofbeats on the ground/And the bandits ride around the Slaughter Trail" -- has an undeniable momentum, but some lyrics are dangerously self-referential, acknowledging that we're watching a movie "on the Cinecolor screen," or explaining how "we add tension to the plot" by introducing Indians. That doesn't match the often grimly serious action of the film, and the inconsistency of tone makes it hard to take any of it seriously.

The Slaughter Trail is where three masked bandits rob a stagecoach. One of them (Gig Young) has a laugh the victims will recognize anywhere, but one of the victims, Lorabelle Larkin (Virginia Grey) is actually in cahoots with the bandits. After her lover pretends to rough her up, Lorabelle continues with the stage to a cavalry fort presided over by Brian Donlevy, a late substitute for abruptly-blacklisted Howard Da Silva. The switch was probably for the best, except for the mistreated Da Silva, who was nonetheless one of the few character actors less plausible, as a typecast heel, in the hero's role than Donlevy himself. Meanwhile, the bandits make their getaway, stealing fresh mounts from some Navajo Indians to, as they say, add tension to the plot. The bandits, masks off, will eventually arrive at the fort, while the Navajos, then at peace with the whites, will demand that Donlevy find the bandits and surrender them to Navajo justice. Once Young betrays himself with unguarded laughter, and is recognized by the Navajos -- his gang had their masks off when they stole those horses -- a common western scenario is set up. Donlevy cares little for the bandits and seems to be falling for their moll, who herself softens in the company of the camp's children, but he must uphold the white man's rule of law against the Navajo demand for tribal justice. The fun thing about Slaughter Trail is how screenwriter Sid Kuller cares about this point of civilization only to set up the Indian attack he needs. The bandits, of course, are trusted to help fight for their lives, and they all die. Once Young goes down, the Navajos pretty much say, "We're done here" and go home. As far as we can tell they'll face no repercussions or reprisals, and Donlevy's ultimate unwillingness to enforce his principle punitively makes his earlier stand on it look silly and wasteful of both white and red lives. Yet the film doesn't treat his character as a fool. Instead, it keeps the door open for an eventual romance between the commander and Lorabelle Larkin after she rides off into the sunset for a period of penance and meditation. It's a realistically ambivalent finish at the end of a musical trail with insufferable stopovers for songs by Gilkyson and purported comedy relief from Andy Devine. His bits may have been funny when different comics first performed them ages ago, but Devine only leaves you wondering where exactly you'd seen them before. There are more minuses than pluses on Slaughter Trail but western genre buffs ought to check it out, if only because there's really nothing else like it.