Thursday, June 30, 2011

Andrzej Wajda: Master of Gore

Made in 1974 under a Communist regime, Ziemia Obiecana (Promised Land) is a sweeping portrait of capitalism on the rise in late-19th century Poland directed by Andrzej Wajda, arguably that nation's greatest director. In some ways it looks like Wajda's attempt to imitate the opulent yet socially conscious work of the Italian director Luchino Visconti, or a companion piece to another Italian epic, Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900. I'll have more to say about the film as a whole this weekend, but for now I have to report the shock I experienced, and wish to share with you, when I discovered, in the midst of this highbrow project, one of the most horrific exhibitions of cinematic gore I've ever seen. You won't have to wait long if you watch the clip below, which was uploaded to YouTube by polskietodobore; the worst is over in less than a minute. To set things up, a factory executive is attacking an employee whom he suspects is out to blackmail him. But the whos and whys won't matter for long once the two men tumble into that wheelwell. Just remember to remind yourself: "It's only socialist realism....It's only socialist realism...."

That's the sort of moment that might mark another movie, or at least one from the capitalist world, as a genre product not to be taken seriously. And some may well feel that Promised Land can't be taken very seriously after such a display, while some of those more intrigued by this sample might find themselves disappointed, despite another factory mutilation scene and a nice man-on-fire bit later, in a film that's much like a densely packed 19th century novel. Does such a scene discredit the artistic aspirations of its director, or can there be a point to it that wouldn't compromise Wajda's artistic integrity. Since one might presume that there'd be no such thing as exploitation cinema in a communist country, we probably should assume the latter, but I'll save my own judgement for later. For now, to reiterate: damn......

Wednesday, June 29, 2011


Taking advantage of a day off, I took a trip to downtown Schenectady to see Bertrand Tavernier's latest film at the GE Theater in the Proctor's Theater complex. Rather than dividing the original 1928 auditorium to get an extra screen, the Proctor's people built an IMAX-ready theater in the space next door, where the Tavernier was projected onto a huge screen for the amusement of a matinee crowd of perhaps a dozen people. That's too bad, because at least pictorially speaking, La Princesse du Montpensier was worthy of the big screen. It's Tavernier's adaptation of a story by the Princesse de Lafayette, a 17th century author, about the wars of religion and aristocratic intrigues of 16th century France. In those days the nation was torn between the Catholic establishment and the Protestant Huguenots, and the film opens with a skirmish from one of the religious wars, one of the episodes of violence that'll punctuate the actual romantic plot. The battle scenes are unromantic; Tavernier does without the pagentry of massive armies, making every encounter look pretty much like a skirmish, albeit a brutal one. In this opening fight, the Count of Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), a Huguenot warrior, takes the fight into a farmhouse, where he ends up reflexively running through a pregnant peasant woman who'd just hit him with a log. Horrified, he resolves to study war no more. He ends up back among the Catholics, returning to the household of the Montpensiers, where the young Prince (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet) had been tutored by him years before. Despite some small suspicion of his motives and loyalties, Chabannes is welcomed back by an admiring Prince, who eventually assigns this Renaissance man to train his new bride, Marie de Mezieres (Melanie Thierry), in the sociocultural niceties and the responsibilities of a lady of the manor -- everything from reading Latin to butchering game.

Marie, our title character, is a reluctant bride in an arranged marriage. It's virtually a commercial transaction that leaves her with little sense of privacy or dignity, at least by modern standards, as spectators settle in after seeing her stripped to listen in on the consummation and claim the bloodied besheet as a kind of trophy. Marie's heart belongs, if anywhere, to the dashingly battle-scarred Duke of Guise (Gaspard Ulliel). Montpensier is well aware of her mixed feelings and is jealously insecure about his own place in her affections. He worries when he learns that Chabannes, at Marie's request, has taught her to write; to whom would she want to write? The troubled young couple have at least one good night in the sack, but Montpensier is always too eager to return to war, as if to prove his superiority to Guise in that sector. He seems to realize, however, that Guise will always be the better fighter, and that increases his anxiety about the Duke as a romantic rival with whom he's all too ready to fight. Meanwhile, one of the royal family, the Duke of Anjou, (Raphael Personnaz), sticks his nose into Montpensier's affairs, in part because of his own attraction to Marie and in part to make mischief for Guise. As for Chabannes, his question is to whom he owes his first loyalty -- his former protege who is now his master, or his new protege, the princess. In the end, he perpetrates an almost Cyrano-like imposture, taking the blame for another man's amorous visit to Marie that costs him his place in the Montpensier household. He ends up in Paris just as the St. Bartholomew's Massacre breaks out, and rather than see helpless innocents slaughtered he finally takes up the sword again, just as he's come to terms with his feelings for the Princess of Montpensier....

Tavernier has a tricky balancing act to perform here. Despite the title, the opening scene creates an expectation that Chabannes will be our main character, and in a sense he is, though he recedes into the background for awhile as Marie's romantic entanglements claim the spotlight. At the same time, the story leaves you wondering about authorial priorities. Marie's amours seem trivial compared to even the limited scope of the religious wars we're exposed to. Moreover, Lambert Wilson (last seen here in the outstanding Of Gods and Men) easily outshines the callow youngsters in the romantic plot, including the indisputably attractive Thierry. Why should we care whom Marie loves? The answer seems to be that it matters to Chabannes -- indeed, it seems as if the truest love of all in the film is that which Chabannes ultimately expresses for her in a letter, and that Marie finally understands will be the one meaningful love in her life. But I'm not sure if I actually buy this. The moral seems to be that Chabannes had finally found someone worthy of self-sacrificing loyalty -- or had created someone in semi-Pygmalion fashion. Maybe I have a less generous heart, but I question Marie's worthiness, mainly because her obsession with Guise is lost on me. I guess that's why I don't usually watch so-called women's pictures. This one is still worth watching, though obviously more so for those more sympathetic with the genre generally, because Tavernier is his usual versatile self as a director, infusing every frame with atmosphere, and Wilson holds the thing together with a charismatic moral authority that transcends the trivialities in which he's enmeshed. If you're like me, however, The Princess of Montpensier will probably leave you looking for a good book on French history to get more of the story that matters.

This English-subtitled trailer for the U.S. release was uploaded to YouTube by VISOTrailers.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

STREET LAW (Il cittadino si rebella, 1974)

Vigilante movies are a peculiarly American genre but it comes as no surprise to see Italians making them as well during the 1970s. It may surprise some to learn that Enzo G. Castellari didn't make Il cittadino si rebella ("The city rebelled") not in response to Michael Winner's Death Wish but just about simultaneously, and that the Italian film is in many ways a more realistic portrait of vigilantism. One major difference off the bat is that Franco Nero's protagonist Carlo Antonelli is not an avenger, except of his own wounded pride. He loses money, not a loved one, to criminals, having picked the wrong time to make a bank transaction. The robbers having made their entrance just as he was at the teller window, Carlo's money sits tauntingly at the counter. I don't know if Italians had deposit insurance at the time, but Carlo clearly isn't taking any chances. He reaches out to grab his money and gets into a scuffle with one of the robbers that results in his being beaten up and taken hostage. Fortunately for him the vicious but stupid criminals leave him alive and largely intact in the countryside despite having taken their masks off in front of him. They presumably hope that Carlo will be too scared ever to identify them.

Getting robbed and beaten is all Franco Nero can stands -- he can't stands no more!

Predictably, the Italian criminal justice system only enrages Carlo more. Just as the cop heroes of the polizio genre complain about bureaucratic restraints on their ability to wipe out criminals, Carlo complains that the system seems to care more for criminals than for their victims, who are treated with condescension at best. Defying his girlfriend's skepticism, and invoking his dead father's involvement in the resistance to Fascism, Carlo acquires a gun and attempts to track down the robbery gang on his own. He proves an incompetent investigator, strolling into a seedy pool hall like a character in some other, more gratifying movie and asking with pseudo-subtlety for "information." He manages to flee without getting the beating his idiocy probably deserved, but the scene makes clear that vigilantism won't be as easy as Carlo may have thought.

Somehow, Carlo finally figures a way into the underworld. He manages to take photographs of two small-timers robbing a jewelry store and uses the pictures to blackmail one of the culprits. Carlo's notion is to arrange an illegal firearms purchase through this hapless perpetrator, and then tip off the cops so they'll raid the scene of the sale. When the cops prove too slow and the crooks seem to have been tipped off, the furious Carlo attempts riskier transactions and only endangers himself. He finally meets the three robbers again, but only gets beat up again. He only survives this time because his own victim, the petty crook Tommy (Giancarlo Prete), decides to help him escape. Tommy's no killer and can't stand the thought of someone getting killed. The great irony of the picture is that only with a criminal's help does our vigilante have a chance in the underworld. Some viewers may find it more ironic that Carlo actually befriends Tommy and encourages him with promises of a partnership in a garage -- the social reform approach to crime -- while relentlessly pursuing his original tormentors.

Castellari can be depended on for effective action scenes, and Nero does some heroic stuntwork as his character takes a picture-long beating. By Castellari standards Street Law is almost a chamber piece that concentrates on suspense rather than escalation in its cat-and-mouse climax in a vast warehouse. The suspense is well-earned since Nero and Prete's vulnerability has been well established already; whether either will survive their final showdown with the three robbers is entirely open to question. Castellari and his writers, along with Nero and Prete, not to mention a distinctively moody rock-inflected score by the De Angelis brothers, put together a very different movie than what I originally expected -- and a much better one.

Here's an English-language trailer, uploaded to YouTube by YOcke:

Monday, June 27, 2011

Wendigo Meets BLED (2009)

We could just as well call this one "Wendigo Meets FEARNet." Time Warner has just added the horror channel to its Albany cable service. It's just a bit of a ripoff to the extent that you have to pay to get it as part of a "Movie Pass" package, but it's a commercial channel. But I thought it'd be worth the trouble because it'd give us an additional stock of vampire films to work with, including this recent item from director Christopher Hutson, which teaches us that vampirism grows on trees.

Like the even lower-budgeted Vampire Hunter, Bled aspires to class by setting itself in the art-world milieu. In this film the heroine, Sai (Sarah Farooqui) is an artist showing her latest works at a gallery. Her work attracts the attention of a European connoisseur whose voice we'd heard in a prologue discussing the price to be paid for immortality. He introduces himself as Renfield Lee (Jonathan Oldham), and no one thinks twice about it. This is an early hint of how clueless the script by someone called "Svx'leithan Essex" can be. Our mysterious man has been given one of those inside-jokey names that low-budget horror makers are so fond of. We're presumably supposed to snicker, but no one in the actual film reacts as you might expect almost anyone in the real world to react to meeting someone named Renfield. For the viewers, this introduction probably creates some confusion. Isn't this guy the vampire? And he's called Renfield? What gives?

He gives, actually. Impressed by Sai's work, Renfield offers her a rare treat: a branch of a strigoi tree, the red sap of which, we learn, can be cooked heroin-style. Inhale the fumes while cooking and you go pale and enter a strange twilight world that looks like a misty, forested soundstage. If you're a woman, you find yourself wearing a flimsy dress; if you're a guy, you wear pajama bottoms. You may encounter attractive males or females who look like people you know but have deep black eyeballs and talk in echoing, distorted voices -- or you may encounter a fanged, veiny fellow in a grey rubber suit. All of these denizens will try to drink your blood if you spend too much time on your trip. That's why you want someone with you who stays straight and wakes you up if you start acting wacky. The best part: while you're dreaming you can break a branch off the strigoi tree in dreamland, and you get to keep it after you wake up!

Predictably, Sai gets hooked, and her art supposedly improves as a result. Perhaps just as predictably, she tries to get her pals turned on to the strigoi sap. Funny thing, though: the more you use, the more you get a thirst for blood in your normal waking life. To review: this is a movie about people who turn into vampires by smoking boiled sap and dreaming about forest monsters.

You might ask, "How does Renfield Lee benefit from this?" if you haven't forgotten after an hour or so that he's a character in the picture. Once he reappears, looking a little more rugged around the jawline, you might suspect that he's going to fatten up on the vampirized Sai, but his actual master plan is even more indirect. It seems that once your sap-users (let's call them saps) get really far gone, a dimensional portal opens allowing Mr. Rubber Suit from the magical forest to enter the more-or-less real world. Is he the master whom Renfield Lee serves and who rewards Renfield Lee with immortality? No, that's still not it. For when Mr. Rubber Suit appears, Renfield Lee greets him with a smarmy, "Hello, old friend" and stabs him in the back with a syringe. Mr. Rubber Suit doesn't approve of this and is busy throttling Lee while Sai's boyfriend Royce enters the dream-forest in the desperate hope of saving Sai's soul. How thoroughly will Renfield be throttled? Can Sai's soul be saved? We're not telling; we don't want to be the only ones who watched this thing....

Wendigo was left wondering some of the same things I did. For instance, should we assume that Renfield Lee has for centuries been tricking this poor rubber-suit man through the dream portal so he can do his stab-and-siphon trick -- and somehow always manages to get away with it? For Wendigo, this is just the most obvious proof that Bled was not thought through very thoroughly before it was put on film. Whether the writer hadn't really thought it through or was just trying to throw plot twists at us, a low budget is no excuse for a lack of internal logic or at least a convincing mythos.

Bled seems designed to link vampirism to a "decadent" arts scene and draw some of the same parallels with drug use that Abel Ferrara used in The Addiction. As a onetime arts major in college, Wendigo can say with some authority that the artist characters in Bled are absolutely unconvincing. They're caricatures of aspiring artists who display no actual artistic or philosophical consciousness and seem more concerned with how they look than with how their work looks. Wendigo goes so far as to say that the actors are too pretty to be artists -- but what else is new in movies? On the other hand, he'll give the artwork used in the film some credit for some genuine artistry, though he doubts whether they'd draw the prices quoted in the script. At best, they seem like the sort of work Sai should be creating under the influence of Romanian strigoi sap.

Compared to The Addiction, Bled's drug metaphors struck Wendigo as pretty superficial, though it's not implausible for young artists to experiment with mind-altering stuff like Romanian strigoi sap or other means of expanding their consciousness. This movie isn't really about drugs, since the tree branches serve only as a gateway to the strange twilight foresty world that the film's really interested in. If the distinction makes sense, Wendigo would say that Bled is ultimately less about an addiction to blood than about an addiction to the dream of vampiric seduction and transformation. As an outright fantasy, it's an interestingly unique variation on vampire mythos in theory. Otherwise, it's a dud on almost every level. The pretentiously shallow script leaves the actors looking hopeless (though Sarah Farooqui herself looks fairly attractive) and does the writer himself no favors. As bad as the writing was, director Hutson was worse. He fails the essential low-budget test of making the most with limited resources, taking little advantage of the one bit of production design on the forest set. While Wendigo does give the film credit for nice bleaching effects whenever someone smokes the sap, and likes the sharklike teeth the victims develop, little else impressed him visually. Hutson is incapable of infusing the story with any eerieness or excitement outside the increasingly monotonous fantasy forest. He probably had a larger budget than Vampire Hunter had, but everyone involved in Bled seemed to have a lot less enthusiasm or sense of fun at work than the Vampire Hunter team had. If the story and high concept weren't thought out thoroughly, everything else about the production is equally half-assed. Bled may not really be the worst vampire movie Wendigo has seen since we started this series, but he hasn't disliked any of the others nearly as much as he disliked this one. This was a bad first impression for FEARNet to make, but fortunately the station almost immediately redeemed itself, as we'll discuss next week.

No screencaps this time, since we watched it on TV, but here's a big old trailer uploaded to YouTube by nin10doklown. Be advised that what you see here is as erotic as this surprisingly tame movie actually gets.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

On the Big Screen: THE TREE OF LIFE (2011)

It's a simple enough story. A husband and wife react to the news that their son has died. Some years later, the anniversary of the death finds one of their surviving sons, now a businessman, in a funk, or more of a funk than normal. He has a tense chat with his still-living dad over the phone and spends the day brooding over his childhood, idealizing his mother and somewhat demonizing his father, not in small part for being what the son himself has become. The son comes to terms, for the time being, by visualizing a place of universal reconciliation where his mother (living or dead in the present?) receives a kind of apotheosis and everyone else is forgiving and forgiven. By doing so, he seems to be following his idolized mother's advice. And from there, life goes on.

The film is not so simple. That's because Terrence Malick made it. The Tree of Life is Malick's fifth film in a 38-year directing career (the sixth is reportedly already in post-production) and since his acclaimed debut with Badlands in 1973 each new Malick movie is treated as a major event. None was more major, at least in theory, than 1998's The Thin Red Line, Malick's third feature and his first in twenty years. It proved a divisive film, admirers praising its pictorial grandeur and spiritual concerns, critics calling it both pretentious and crass in its casting of big-name stars in small roles. Seven years later came Malick's Jamestown epic The New World, again divisive though in my view a significant improvement on The Thin Red Line, and six years after that comes the new picture.

Malick divides audiences because he defies many of the narrative conventions of mainstream cinema. He's a writer-director who recognizes that cinema is essentially something different from theater and has thus striven to make cinema a mode of expression unbound by the conventions and expectations of theater. He deals with themes that can't be resolved in a single decisive conversation, but he also uses images (some say in profligate fashion) to evoke mood or provoke thought or feeling. If you expect every frame in a film to advance the plot of a story in some quantifiable way, Malick's work will increasingly rub you the wrong way. It will seem self-indulgent, and sometimes leave you wondering what the point of some scenes are. The Tree of Life forces the issue frequently, most notoriously already in a bridge sequence from the brooding of the adult Jack O'Brien (Sean Penn) to the major flashback sequence of the film. The bridge is a sequence illustrating the creation of the universe and life on Earth, culminating in a scene in which a dinosaur menaces, then spares an injured rival. The sequence leaves many viewers scratching their heads, and I'm not sure how much I can help them. My problem with it is that I'm not sure whether it's the vision of Jack O'Brien or the vision of Terrence Malick. The difference matters, but the distinction between subjective envisioning and directorial intervention is blurry throughout the film.

The mystery of Tree of Life is whether it's essentially a character study of Jack, in which case we can comprehend (if not understand) all the visions as emanations from his troubled mind, or a philosophical statement by the director, in which case the visions are presumably meant as assertions of objective truth. The distinction is more crucial when we think about the philosophical and emotional states represented by Jack's mom and dad. The difference between them is first stated in the voice of Jack's mother (Jessica Chastain), who posits (in Malick's preferred manner of voiceover rather than dialogue) a difference between the "way of nature" and the "way of grace." Perhaps controversially, she identifies the way of "nature" as a state of perpetual narcissistic resentment; the "natural" man resents life itself for its limits and the way it limits his aspirations, and takes his frustration out on others. This is clearly how Jack sees his father (Brad Pitt), a would-be classical pianist and inventor who toils in an unfulfilling white-collar job and spends his downtime trying to harden his three sons into disciplined, realistic and self-reliant men. Mother herself represents the "way of grace," which is pretty much the practice of unconditional loving acceptance of all things and all people. Her initial utterance seems to pose a stark choice between the two ways, but Jack himself, reminiscing in the voice of his younger self (Hunter McCracken), confesses that impulses in both directions are constantly pulling at him. Fair enough. But is this just what Jack believes, or is it what Malick himself believes? To ask it differently, does Malick believe that Jack is right? Does Malick see life in terms of nature versus grace, and does he recommend grace? Or is his ultimate point, Jack's closing epiphany (itself problematic; if Jack's father is still alive, why doesn't he visualize an older Brad Pitt on the beach?) notwithstanding, that like Jack, we all have to wrestle and to an extent reconcile the two great impulses? I can't answer for certain.

My uncertainty is based in part on Malick's almost pre-modern reduction of his family to archetypes. Jack's parents don't even have proper names; they are addressed (at the father's insistence, we learn) as "Father" and "Mother," and in Jack's own mind his own brothers are usually addressed as "Brother." Despite Malick's attempt to base his verbiage in character, it results in impossible sounding voiceover utterances -- especially impossible in a child's voice -- like: "Mother, Father: Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will." Moments like that tempt you to think that Malick means the O'Briens to be a symbolic family representing the general human condition -- in which case we're presumably not seeing the subjective reveries of a particular troubled person, but an oracular directorial vision of which the O'Briens are just a part. On the other hand, Malick gives the film enough detail to keep the O'Briens particular personalities -- though Mother is pretty much too good to be true. So no matter what Malick intends, there's still room to see whatever you see as the product of a particular mind of a character film rather than Malick's directives on how to live. For some viewers, clinging to Jack's subjectivity may make Tree a more tolerable experience, while treating it as Malick's sermon might render it intolerable.

Because Malick has such a strong directorial stamp, his movie probably won't please people who prefer seamless narrative illusions. Visually his style has become more cumulative than narrative, building impressions with collections of fragmentary images and vignettes rather than with theatrically linear and conventional dialogue scenes. Throughout his career, he's been fond of voiceovers to an extent that's bordered on the anti-cinematic, as if he didn't trust his images and incidents to convey the right message. Since the debacle of The Thin Red Line, he's grown subtler in his use of voiceover, to the point where The Tree of Life arguably employs what might be called unreliable voiceovers. Whether you agree with me depends, again, on whether what we see at any moment is a subjective memory of Jack's or an objective statement by Malick. I'm inclined to think that it's all subjective, including the supposed voiceovers by other actors. When Hunter McCracken reads that awful line I quoted above as a voiceover, for instance, it's my belief that it's actually the adult Jack "speaking" in his younger self's voice. Moreover, since we have no proof of any intellectual ambition on the part of Jack's mother, and we never see her speaking with such sophistication in dialogue, I'd suggest that the opening lines about the ways of nature and grace, spoken by Jessica Chastain in voiceover, are also actually expressions of Jack's nostalgia, if not his own projection onto his mother of a philosophy she may not necessarily have stated explicitly herself. On the other hand, since Malick doesn't write dialogue in a theatrical way, we could interpret the voiceovers not as representations of what a character is thinking at a given moment, but as abstract summations of characters' personalities. If so, Malick might deserve credit for finding a way to give voiceovers more cinematic potential by unmooring them from the here-and-now of any given shot and thus liberating them from redundancy. The project may still need work, but I think he's making progress.

But if all this commentary about technique and philosophy is scaring anyone from the film, let me draw you back in by saying that what Malick does best in Tree of Life is pretty easily comprehensible for anyone. The core of the film is a recreation of childhood, and while it's based on a specific, lost moment in American history (the 1950s) it's still incredibly evocative in ways just about anyone should recognize. Malick recaptures a multitude of little moments that everyone has experienced, though I may be speaking for boys rather than girls, and that authenticity is the essential foundation for everything else he attempts. The fragmentary, fleeting way in which he presents these moments also looks like a fair match for the way we remember the past, not in a dramatically linear way but more by bits and pieces, in haphazardly holistic fashion. I suspect that anyone who takes a chance on Tree will come away with an appreciation of Malick's solid achievement in this area, even if other aspects of the film leave them reeling or merely baffled. I'd also say, despite my own reservations, that any self-described fan of cinema (as opposed to those who just go to see a story) should take the chance and give Tree of Life a try. It's this year's ultimate in summer counterprogramming, and if not necessarily the year's best film it'll certainly be one of its most ambitious.

Friday, June 24, 2011


Chinese swordplay films often take place in a kind of fantasy world, a kind of Camelot of chivalry, with villains, heroes (and heroines) and magical quests. But not every one of them counts as a fairy tale. Hua Shan's film is an exceptional wuxia story of an antihero who never really becomes a hero. It's a film that tries to teach a lesson without the protagonist really benefiting from it.

The protagonist remains deliberately nameless throughout the film. We first see him as a child watching a public duel, with a local potentate presiding, between the recognized "King of Swords," whose face is covered by a veil, and a brash young challenger, attended by his wife or girlfriend. Before long the King proves his dominance and gives the challenger a chance to concede and withdraw. The duel was decided before it began, the King claims, because the challenger's emotional ties to his beloved are too obvious and too strong. Chagrined, the challenger resumes the fight and is dead within moments. Moments later, his beloved kills herself. The King is richly rewarded. The morbid spectacle inspires the child spectator to become a swordsman and challenge the King someday.

As a young man (Ti Lung), the nameless swordsman is building a reputation in the territory. He's highly regarded enough to be a target in his own right, as we see when a swordswoman intrudes on his bath to attack him. She's dispatched easily enough, but proves just a stalking horse for another woman warrior who prefers to bide her time. Nameless takes such menaces in stride. He's just as likely to storm into some school or other place himself to pick a fight and build his rep. Nothing really matters to him but defeating the King of Swords. He remains nameless because he'll accept no name other than "King of Swords." But something else seems to drive him. Repeatedly, he has visions of the young woman who killed herself at that long-ago duel.

Arriving at the potentate's city, Nameless learns that the King of Swords is away on business. Since his reputation has preceded him, Nameless is invited to hang out as the potentate's guest until the King returns for the inevitable duel. While he waits, he befriends a local doctor who tries to teach him to enjoy life on its own terms, from the pleasures of good food or good jokes -- the film tarries to hear an old man tell a story supposedly so funny that it makes a horse piss -- to the pleasures of women. And as if on cue, his vision seems to come to life in the form of a local shopgirl. By falling in love with her he acquires a new rival whom the girl convinces him to spare after repeated fights. The rival ends up joining forces with the mysterious woman stalker, while the King's imminent return gets Nameless worrying over whether his new feelings will cost him his edge. Shocks and surprises are in store that leave him wondering whether victory would be worth the trouble he's taken -- and that will be when he's most vulnerable....

Soul of the Sword is a truly character-driven wuxia film, one that stands out from what I've seen of the genre in its tight focus on a single character arc. That being said, I'm still unsure what to make of Nameless. Is he driven by ego and ambition, as the film implies early, or did he have some subconscious drive to avenge that poor young woman? If so, how to account for how he treats his own girlfriend, the spitting image of that long-ago victim? The confusion actually makes Nameless a more complex, interesting character, since his motives are so clearly and sadly mixed.

At the same time, one wonders what the moral's supposed to be, given what we learn about the doctor dispensing all the folksy, life-embracing advice. In a classic case of "physician, heal thyself," you're left to ponder whether his were sincerely-offered life lessons or simply snares to trick a sucker. Again, however, his inconsistencies strike me as enriching contradictions that parallel those of Nameless and strengthen the film's sense of tragedy.

Given the more intimate scope of the story, Hua Shan doesn't need the atmospheric sweep of many earlier wuxia films to impress the viewer. The fights are well staged as far as I can judge, but the director excels at shock moments that create extra suspense, the climactic one being when Nameless approaches a presumed corpse only to have it spring into malevolent action against him. Overall, Soul of the Sword works best as a mood piece, if not a critique from within the swordplay genre of swordplay as an end unto itself.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Columbia Classics is Sony Pictures Home Entertainment's counterpart to the Warner Archive and similar enterprises that provide DVD-R editions of relatively-obscure movies to hardcore fans and collectors. The films, from what I've seen, are remastered to Sony's usual high standard, and like the Warner Archive titles, they have no extras apart from trailers when available. Tempting as many titles are, the typical price seems a little high for a sight-unseen purpose. Fortunately, the Albany Public Library has started acquiring Columbia Classics titles, only adding to the temptations that revered institution puts in my way. I reported on my first encounter with Columbia Classics in my review of Sidney Lumet's The Deadly Affair, but for this occasion I want to give readers some capsule reviews (by my standards) of a number of titles now available at the library.

We start way back in 1939 with Charles Vidor's early attempt at a psychological thriller, Blind Alley. Adapted from a stage play, it stars Chester Morris as an escaped con who needs a house on the lake to hide out in while waiting for a boat to ferry him the rest of the way to freedom. The house is the home of a psychology professor (Ralph Bellamy) who's hosting a small party. After Morris kills a late-arriving student, Bellamy decides that he has to "break" Morris mentally in order to save the lives of his family and his remaining guests. Noting Morris's strange focus on a book on insanity among criminals, Bellamy probes the criminal's anxieties and learns that he suffers from a recurring nightmare about getting caught in a rainstorm with a leaky umbrella. His dream analysis uncovers a childhood trauma involving an Oedipus complex, but whether resolving it will reform or even restrain Morris, his moll (Ann Dvorak) and his gang, not to mention some scared and belligerent guests and staff, is another set of matters. The script takes Vidor into tentatively surreal territory as he illustrates Morris's dream, while he gets some unpredictable performances from his ensemble that help keep things interesting. As a cool, calculating headshrinker, Bellamy is really more menacing than the blustering Morris; we can imagine a gunman breaking into a Hannibal Lecter dinner party getting similar treatment. But the end result of the therapy is a little hard to believe, raising the question whether the journey was worth the trouble.

From the Thirties we leap to the Fifties, landing first at 711 Ocean Drive, Joseph H. Newman's star vehicle for noir icon Edmond O'Brien. It feels less like a noir than like a techno thriller or even a science fiction film at first as O'Brien's phone-company technician with a gambling habit is introduced to the world of small-time bookmaking. Seeing an opportunity, he uses his technical expertise in communications to modernize and revolutionize the racket with an exhilarating rush of innovation, making it big enough to attract the attention of the national crime syndicate. The film inflicts a superfluous love story on us when O'Brien falls for the troubled wife (Joanne Dru) of the syndicate's emissary. The romance, added to O'Brien's resentment of syndicate ripoffs, leads him to call a hit on the husband and strike back at the syndicate with an elaborate con involving intercepted communications from race tracks to Las Vegas casinos. He finds it impossible to make a clean getaway, however, and ends up cornered in epic style at Boulder Dam. The story is also burdened with a sporadic police narration that seems intended to keep us from identifying too strongly with O'Brien's character, wrapping up with a bitter exhortation against the two-dollar betting that finances racketeering and murder. Overall, this one has a terrific opening and close, but bogs down a bit in between, as if it were perhaps a reel too long. Despite that, it's definitely a must for O'Brien fans.

Robert Parrish's Assignment: Paris from 1952 probably should have been called Assignment: Budapest, but which title would you rather try selling to audiences? Adapted from a Paul Gallico magazine serial, this one is an interesting variation on the Cold War thriller, since it doesn't involve an international Communist conspiracy, but a conspiracy of communists against communists. Dana Andrews plays a reporter newly assigned to the Paris office of the International Herald Tribune after penning some high-profile exposes on communism at home. He wants to report on the imprisonment of an American in Hungary for spying, while a female colleague (Marta Toren) wants their editor (George Sanders) to follow up on some dynamite leads on a plot within the Hungarian government to break with the Warsaw Pact and ally with Tito's renegade commie regime in Yugoslavia. The film is unorthodox in other ways, presenting us with a quadrangle rather than a triangle: Andrews is falling for Toren, who's being pursued by Sanders, the former boyfriend of Audrey Totter's fashion editor. More unusually, Toren rather than Andrews ends up the hero of the film after Andrews is arrested in Budapest, tricked into recording a cut-and-paste confession of espionage, and gradually reduced to a virtual zombie through drugged food and sleep deprivation. It's up to Toren to get the evidence that will force the conspirators within the Hungarian regime to free a possibly permanently damaged Andrews in a surprisingly downbeat finish. This one's no classic but I give it credit for skipping many of the usual patriotic anti-communist bromides in favor of a more ambivalent approach to the Cold War -- one that was ahead of its time in Hollywood.

Just as Assignment Paris benefits from authentic location shooting in Europe, so does 1957's Pickup Alley, a John Gilling film that puts Victor Mature through his paces from New York to Rome, Athens, etc. Mature is an American drug enforcement agent out to avenge the murder of his sister and fellow-agent by a brutal international drug kingpin. To put the problem as delicately as possible, the brutal international drug kingpin is played by Trevor Howard in a reckless bit of miscasting. He can do the brutality when required -- including socking Anita Ekberg in the face -- but he's otherwise just too laid-back to keep us galvanized against him. He completely lacks the ferocious urgency the part would seem to require, though Howard might have been able to pull off something more along the lines of Fernando Rey's druglord from The French Connection. Worse, for an avenger Mature brings very little energy to his work here. Too much of the film is simply a matter of Mature following Howard or Ekberg around Europe in meandering fashion. Worse still, Mature picks up a fast-talking comedy-relief informant sidekick in Rome and is stuck with him (or his supposed brother) for the rest of the picture. Gilling occasionally works up some atmosphere, especially in a New York jazz club, and the location work is wonderful -- there's a heartbreaking tracking shot through Times Square at night during the opening credits that shows all the vanished movie palaces in their glory -- but the film as a whole is too slow and not sleazy enough to live up to its advertising.

Finally, and also from 1957, comes Fred Sears's The Night the World Exploded, a Sam Katzman sci-fi production with a slightly exaggerated title. The world might explode if someone can't figure out what's causing so many massive earthquakes, but William Leslie and Kathryn Grant are on the case. These earthquakes are bad, causing uncontrollable flows of stock footage and allegedly throwing the planet as much as three degrees off its axis. Our intrepid scientists overcome an initial lack of intimacy -- Grant was about to quit and get married to some nobody because Leslie hadn't noticed her as a woman -- to discover the dreaded Element 113, a newly volatile substance that just plain grows (until it explodes) in open air after generations of mining had "reduced the gravity" holding it back in selected spots around the world. Our heroes figure out that Element 113 can be suppressed by flooding the exposed mines and caverns with water. The governments of the world cooperate by carpet bombing the landscape in order to divert rivers to where they need to go, but it wouldn't be a matinee movie if it didn't prove to be a very near thing. It's all self-evident hogwash, but the actors redeem it to the point of watchability with enthusiastic performances. Just before watching this I'd seen a truly bad sci-fi film, the British Cosmic Monsters, which was no more preposterous than Sears's movie but was weighed down by utterly unenthusiastic acting by Forrest Tucker and company. It seemed like no one wanted to be in that movie, so why should we want to watch it? The cast of Sears's film aren't exactly master thespians, and their dialogue isn't exactly scintillating, but they do seem interested in keeping us interested, and that often makes the difference between the bad movies people love and the ones that truly are the worst ever made.

The Albany library's main branch has at least a dozen Columbia Classics titles so far, and more seem to be coming in regularly now. If enough of them entice me you'll probably see another Cavalcade article sometime this summer. If this has helped anyone make a purchasing decision, I'll feel that I've done my job.

Monday, June 20, 2011

LES FELINS (Joy House, 1964)

Blame the hard-boiled author Day Keene for the American title of Rene Clement's proto-erotic thriller: that's what he called the book it's based on. It pretty convincingly fails to convey the sinister mood of the piece; despite the hothouse hype M-G-M applied to selling the picture, that title can't help but make you expect something happy, or perhaps something musical. And with Lalo Schifrin composing the score it is a pretty musical picture, but that telltale harpsichord should tell all but the most obtuse that something decadent is going on here.

Alain Delon plays Marc, a crook caught sleeping with the wrong woman, the property of a big man in the Mob. Taken out to the Mediterranean coast of France to be whacked, Marc manages to escape by commandeering a car and driving it over a cliff, then hopping across some railroad tracks just before a train roars by. Ragged and bruised, he hitchhikes into the nearest city and hides among the homeless in a mission shelter. Meals are provided by a glamorous pair of American women: Barbara (Lola Albright), a widow who owns a mysterious mansion, and her cousin Melinda (Jane Fonda). They just happen to be looking for a new chauffeur, too, ideally a guy who looks good in a Kato uniform.

Delon: from frying pan to fire

It's a good deal for Marc since it keeps him out of town, where the mobsters are still looking for him. He doesn't want to stay for long, though; once he earns enough money he wants to reunite with the girlfriend with whom he started all the trouble. That doesn't fit with Barbara's plans or Melinda's -- it develops that they are not the same. Both women want to keep Marc on the estate, but Melinda's motivated by possessive lust, while Barbara has an ulterior motive. It's up to Marc to figure that out -- it may have to do with the secret wing of the "neo-gothic" mansion -- before it's too late for him. That means playing the women against each other if necessary, with sex as a weapon, but Marc is not the only player on the premises, and his isn't the only game. It may have been too late for him the moment he took the job....

Jane Fonda as Melinda

Lola Albright as Barbara

"Neo-gothic" is right, right down to the gimmick of the secret room and its possible occupant. It's only fitting, too, since film noir is arguably crime cinema with a gothic tinge, while Clement's film of Keene's story is a "neo-gothic" way station from noir to something else, something closer to the "swinging gothic" style of the giallo. It puts Delon in an extreme noir situation, caught between two rival femmes fatales, on top of an ultimately familiar noir plot. It ends up feeling like a cross between His Kind of Woman and The Beguiled, and in cocky gigolo mode Delon makes the perfect mark for the story, confident of his manly power to master the situation while someone is almost always a step ahead of him. As the femmes (the felins tag extends to Delon's character, described as a "wildcat"), Albright (best known as Peter Gunn's love interest) and Fonda control the tension between them quite nicely, letting it build gradually as you wonder which will backstab the other first. Also worthy of note is Sorrell "Boss Hogg" Brooke as a picturesque mobster shutterbug stalking Delon.

The prisoner of "Joy House"

Les Felins is slick and sleek throughout, thanks to Schifrin's moody music and Henri Decae's sharp cinematography. Clement keeps things moving with the occasional burst of action while slowly building the tension in the main triangle. There's nothing profound here but it'll keep you entertained and perhaps a little chilled by the end. I recommend it most for fans of Fonda and Delon and Euro-thriller enthusiasts in general.

Here's a French "Les Felins" trailer with English subtitles, uploaded to YouTube by icsprks.

Saturday, June 18, 2011


My first impressions of Hong Kong martial arts films were made by "Kung Fu Theater" broadcasts on independent TV when I was a kid. None of those films were shown in their proper aspect ratio, and most of them dealt almost exclusively with bare-handed fighting, with exceptions made for what we called "numbchucks." Now that I'm watching more of the earlier sword-oriented films in remastered widescreen editions, I get a new impression (however inaccurate it may be) of aesthetic decline over the course of the 1970s, with production values and character development being sacrificed to the virtuoso display of fighting techniques in stripped-down settings. That impression reflects actual Hong Kong movie history less than it does my admiration for the wuxia films I've been seeing lately from the Albany Public Library's recently augmented collection. These compare favorably with the best American swashbuckling films, and I feel that Douglas Fairbanks Sr. would feel at home in films like these with their exuberant action and moral simplicity. Films like Ho Meng-hua's Lady Hermit take place in a "martial world" where people consciously aspire to be heroes and are widely recognized as such, but rarely without learning moral lessons along the way. In their self-conscious, unambiguous heroism, dedicated as often to justice as to vengeance, with the two often intertwined, these films resemble Italian fusto films about Hercules, Maciste and other wandering do-gooders, but benefit from a dynamism that the Italian films often lacked. The wuxia films often manage to be more emotionally complex than the fustos without sacrificing their moral commitments, and sometimes strive for genuine pathos, as in Lady Hermit.

Ho tells a simple story made fresh by its focus on female heroism. It's a story oft-told in the martial world of a brash student eager to learn from an admired master, but for the wrong reasons initially. Here the would-be student is the whip-wielding Chin (Szu Shih), who attaches herself to a security service escorting caravans in the hope of meeting her idol, the heroic fighter known as "Lady Hermit." Chin wants to be a famous fighter and is arrogant about her ambition, not knowing that a humble servant woman she encounters is the great heroine herself (Cheng Pei-pei) traveling incognito while recuperating from a battle with the local arch-villain, the Black Demon (Hsieh Wang). She reveals herself in order to break up a racket run by the B.D.'s Taoist con men in which they fake hauntings and supernatural attacks and then sell charms and protections to the yokels. Once she reveals herself it's time to move on, with Chin following her like a stray puppy. After repeated rebuffs, Chin finally wins the Lady over. From carrying her bags she'll move on to learn the technique the Lady has developed to counter Black Demon's main attack. He injured her waist some time back using this devastating attack, which consists of grabbing someone and tossing them into the air. Her new technique emulates the cat's ability to land on her feet, but the Lady herself may still be too fragile to practice it in combat. So she spends hours tossing Chin about until she gets the hang of the technique, in case it falls upon the new apprentice to take down the Black Demon.

The villain.

The Lady has another admirer, security guard Wu Chang-chun (Lo Lieh), who is gradually torn between his devotion to the heroine and his growing affection for Chin. The apprentice herself notices the closeness of her friend and her master and grows jealous. Her idea of showing them what's what is to take out Black Demon and his gang single-handedly, despite the Lady's forceful insistence that she isn't ready. But the Lady can't stop Chin from running away and laying siege to Black Demon's compound. She takes out numerous minions but is gradually softened up before the man himself deigns to engage her in unequal combat. As you might suppose, the Lady and Wu rush to the rescue, setting up the long-awaited rematch between the black-nailed villain and the avenger in the white straw hat....

Humiliated by the Lady Hermit, Chin seeks redemption by conquering Black Demon's compound.

Chronologically speaking, Cheng Pei-pei is probably the first of the Seventies' cinematic superheroines, a global cohort of game-changers on whom she had a few years' head start dating back to her breakout film, King Hu's Come Drink With Me. As the Lady Hermit Cheng is an iconic figure in a costume very similar to what she wore in The Brothers Five one year earlier. At age 26, she already seems an authoritative elder stateswoman of the martial world. There's a poignancy to her performance as a heroine who's relegated herself to a lonely life, whether for religious or other reasons. You get the sense that, the great battle won, everything could be straightened out between her and her two proteges, who really belong together but could still use a benevolent master. But she closes the film Chaplin-like striking out on her own again, with a repentant Chin determined to find her once more. I can't really judge Cheng's martial arts, but my understanding is that, pre-Bruce Lee, technique wasn't the be-all-end-all of martial arts films. It suffices that Cheng is entirely convincing as a superheroine in her fantastic milieu.

Better known for sleazier later films as well as the King Kong ripoff Goliathon (aka The Mighty Peking Man), Ho Meng-hua directs the action energetically while displaying an admirable eye for landscape and architecture. The screencaps, hopefully, speak for themselves in favor of Ho's direction, the art direction by Johnson Tsao and the cinematography of Li Yu-tang and Lin Kuo-Hsiang. While pictorially attractive, Lady Hermit is also occasionally gory in a cartoonish way that doesn't really compromise the fantastic flavor of the film. It's unpretentious stuff filmed, written and performed with consummate professionalism for effortless entertainment.

More images from The Lady Hermit

For more on Cheng Pei-pei, check out my review of Come Drink With Me and a Brothers Five review coming soon....

Thursday, June 16, 2011


Japanese cinema scored another global coup when Tadashi Imai's multi-generation chronicle won the Golden Bear award at the 1963 Berlin Film Festival, but for some reason the film hasn't really made it into the global canon of Japanese cinema. That may be because Imai himself remains an obscure figure outside Japan, despite the award. I hadn't really heard of him until I rented the AnimEigo DVD from the Albany Public Library. It may also be because Bushido brutally debunks the samurai legend that has captured the global imagination, in a more positive way, since the end of World War II. It's possible that Berlin may have honored the film less for its content than for its tour-de-force showcase of actor Kinnosuke Nakamura in seven different roles -- a feat that Shirley MacLaine would match with Vittorio de Sica's help a few years later.

Nakamura, whom I appreciate more the more I recognize him in movies, embodies seven generations of the Iizuka family, a dynasty of chumps. We first see him in a modern framing sequence as a Sixties salaryman rushing to a hospital after hearing of his fiancee's suicide attempt. Whatever's happened, he blames himself for it, and his ancestors as well. He's done some research on his family history and finds himself repeating a pathetic pattern.

From this point the film goes all the way back to the start of the Tokugawa period and marches forward across the generations as, again and again, the Iizuka of the era ruins his life, and usually the lives of his loved ones, out of misplaced loyalty -- loyalty being the essence of bushido -- to unworthy lords. In the first episode, Iizuka is a junior officer who commits suicide to prevent his general from being executed for a military blunder. In the next, the dead man's son commits a faux pas while urging food upon his dying, senile lord. Despite his disgrace, or because of it, he's all too eager to join other samurai in killing themselves so they can join their lord in death. In episode three, Iizuka is initially pleased to be inducted in his lord's inner circle, only to discover to his extreme chagrin that the lord's interest in him is purely carnal.

In the fourth and longest episode, Iizuka is a respected master swordsman, specializing in blindfolded strikes. His life is slowly taken apart as his superiors demand first his daughter (who loves another) and later his wife for sexual favors. The wife kills herself rather than go through with it, and Iizuka suffers disgrace for the inconvenience imposed on a superior person. He's promised reinstatement if he'll carry out a blindfolded execution. The deed done, he learns that he's decapitated his own daughter, who'd defied the system by trying to elope with her true love, now also dead. He approaches the platform where his lord presides, but is still too submissive, or perhaps just too grief-stricken, to carry out the revenge we might normally expect. Instead, the lord thrusts Iizuka's own sword through his hand. As our man painfully draws the weapon out, we might still think, "Now he's going to give the bastard what he deserves," but instead he just kills himself in horrendously abject fashion.

The pace picks up from here as we hurtle back toward the present. In episode five, set in the early Meiji period of modernization, Iizuka shelters a sick, probably senile old aristocrat who ends up raping our hero's girlfriend. A World War II vignette barely qualifies as an episode, since we get just a fleeting glimpse of airman Iizuka as a kamikaze pilot. That brings us back to the present as we learn modern-day Iizuka's sad story. It's a Romeo-Juliet sort of story, since Iizuka and his fiancee work for rival businesses. As usual, Iizuka's servile loyalty leads him to hurt those more deserving of it, as his boss pressures him into inducing his fiancee, an executive secretary, into perpetrating industrial espionage. But just as you're convinced that some things never change, our Sixties sap seems to wise up, renouncing his heritage of bootlicking, at least in theory, to marry the recovering girl in defiance of his bosses.

Bushido should be better known simply for Nakamura's performances. Aided by changing fashions and hairstyles, the actor works against the odds set by the determinist screenplay to make each Iizuka a distinct personality rather than the recurrence of a certain "type" throughout history. As for the film as a whole, its structure works against it somewhat. The longest and most dramatic episode sits at the center of the movie, making the last three stories (the WW2 bit especially) seem anticlimactic. Something like D. W. Griffith's Intolerance format might have worked better. Then Imai could have gone back and forth through time from story to story and saved the climax of the central story until closer to the close of the film. But while the whole suffers from imbalance, every frame of the film is sharply shot and Imai milks each episode for maximum emotional impact. That alone may drive people from the theater, since Imai's bushido is the ideology of a dystopian past, a time when the boot did come down on your face forever. While other Japanese films critiqued feudal society and culture while managing to uphold the individual samurai as a heroic ideal, Bushido denies audiences any such consolation. However fundamentally decent they may all have been, the Iizukas are all chumps, saps, dopes, dupes, idiots, suckers -- the overall effect is so monotonously oppressive that you're tempted to rebel or at least to suspect that Imai is stacking the historical deck. My hunch, however, is that he's closer to the historical truth than most samurai movies, simply because he rejects any audience-gratifying heroic reading of the era. Bushido isn't really as violent as the contemporary films from around the world that I identify with a "history of cruelty" genre, but in its own way it may be more depressing and demoralizing than nearly all of those films. In that, it achieves a kind of greatness that makes it worthy of wider recognition.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Wendigo Meets THE ADDICTION (1995)

Nearly three quarters of a century after Nosferatu, directors still found ways to tell vampire stories in stark black and white -- visually, if not morally. Abel Ferrara was just past the peak of the notoriety earned by The Bad Lieutenant when he directed this philosophical vampire film in 1995. Sixteen years later, my friend Wendigo is just seeing it for the first time. He says he simply lacked opportunities; he was unable to find it available for rental at local stores, and back in the day it was too expensive to risk a purchase. He'd heard good words about it and was aware of the obvious analogy between vampirism and drug use, but it wasn't until he finally saw it that he appreciated how forcefully the analogy was stated. On the other hand, it took him by surprise to learn that the movie wasn't in color. It was actually a pleasant surprise, since horror always benefits from shadows. Monochrome also tones down the artificiality of movie blood, in his opinion; black blood more purely represents blood, he argues, than the usual red stuff, and blood is black at night. Black blood is horrific without being disgusting or, to go to the opposite extreme, pretty. It becomes something of a suggestive shadow itself.

Black and white also seems right for a film preoccupied with concepts of evil and guilt. Nicholas St. John's script deals with NYU doctoral candidate Kathleen Conklin (Lili Taylor), whose philosophy dissertation addresses issues of individual and collective guilt. We first see her watching a slideshow on the My Lai Massacre and complaining that not enough people were held accountable for American atrocities against the Vietnamese. A similar slideshow on the Nazi death camps reinforces her sense of collective if not universal guilt for mankind's crimes against itself. Her moral indignation grows predatory after she's accosted by a strange woman (Annabella Sciorra) who bites her in the neck without showing any obvious fangs. Pinning her against a wall, the woman challenges her to tell her to leave, but Kathleen can't do it. Instead, leaving Kathleen to bleed, the stranger hints teasingly at what will happen later.

After undergoing the worst ER care ever, a still-bloodstained and ill-bandaged Kathleen grows ill and loses her appetite. Doctors call it anemia but once she starts vomiting blood Kathleen herself surmises that it's something worse. Acting on a strange impulse, she takes a syringe to a homeless man passed out on the sidewalk, draws a small quantity of blood, takes it home and shoots herself up with it. From then on, she's a new woman, increasingly contemptuous toward academia and increasingly ruthless about luring people from colleagues to gangbangers off the mean streets into victimhood. She adopts the other woman's spiel, daring victims to tell her to go in an intriguing reversal of the usual need to be invited in, as if their not being able to order her away makes their fates their fault.

Eventually she tries her spiel on the wrong man, one who spits it right back at her before dragging her to his place. This is Peina (Christopher Walken), who tells Kathleen that she's "nothing" because she's now controlled entirely by her appetites. Peina, meanwhile, has been "fasting" for years, though that doesn't stop him from snacking on Kathleen's blood. For all we know, that's how Peina gets by, preying on vampires so he can then pass himself as human. But we'll let him explain himself.

Apparently learning nothing from Peina, Kathleen continues to kill people, eventually building up superhuman strength and a little coven to unleash on professors and fellow students at a party celebrating her doctorate. Oddly, her original attacker also shows up; it seems like the film is missing a scene in which Kathleen meets her again, leaving us to wonder how she made contact with the stranger (called "Casanova" in the credits), or if the woman somehow found her way to the death orgy on her own. In any event, Kathleen "overdoses" on blood and goes stumbling out into the street to writhe about until bystanders call for help. Hospitalized and demoralized (perhaps by a crucifix on the wall of her room), she decides to end it Let The Right One In style (perhaps inspiring the novel's author) by having a nurse open her blinds at sunrise. But just before the beams reach her, Casanova appears to close the blinds and mock her with theology. Kathleen gets a second try, however, when a priest comes to visit. Will a consecrated host in her mouth do the trick? It depends on how you interpret the film's final scene, when Kathleen visits her own grave....

Wendigo feels that The Addiction lived up to its title. The analogy of vampire and junky is often alluded to in popular fiction, movies and TV, but Ferrara's film really plumbs the depths, portraying its vampire as an addictive (or addicted) personality in various stages of delirium, degeneracy and wretchedness. Wendigo has no problem with making vampirism a metaphor with addiction, since the folkloric vampire really exists for no reason but to feed on what it needs. The vampire, presumably, thinks only of more blood the way the junky thinks only of the next fix. That's not the way many popular vampires are portrayed today -- though there are exceptions like Kim Harrison's novels. While Wendigo welcomes variations on the vampire theme that don't emphasize the addiction angle, he worries that ignoring it often means missing opportunities for making characters richer and deeper. Something is arguably lost when vampires are reduced to cool immortals with odd drinking habits, though some things might be gained as well.

At the same time, Wendigo agrees with my view that the junky metaphor is only part of The Addiction's agenda. The script really insists on taking philosophical positions that have little apparent relevance to drug addiction, but Kathleen's obsession with evil and punishment is arguably another kind of addiction. In the most sweeping terms, addiction is just a sub-category of evil, and Kathleen succumbs to it just as she seems to have convinced herself that mankind as a whole is evil. Inevitably that means she's evil as well, maybe even before she was bitten, and that belief empowers her to do evil unto others, presumably on the premise that we all have it coming. But the film appears to argue that to presume evil's absolute sway is to give in to evil. As Walken's well-adjusted vampire puts it, if you think you're a vampire you'll act like a vampire, when you're really nothing.

At the same time, Wendigo noticed that the more evil Kathleen becomes, the more vulnerable she becomes in time-honored style to religious symbols. Mindlessly accepting a tract from a typical streetcorner evangelist, she's driven berserk by it in her apartment, thrashing about on the floor, tearing at her clothes and refusing to "submit." Later, in the hospital, the crucifix on the wall arguably induces her to try to destroy herself. What happens after is kept ambiguous. She accepts a communion wafer from the priest, and the next thing we see is her grave. The next thing we see after that is Kathleen placing a flower on the grave, and the last thing we hear is her voiceover remarking that self-realization is self-annihilation. Wendigo observes that this outdoor cemetery scene is the most brightly-lit scene in the picture, which suggests something unearthly. You could assume that she faked her death somehow and is ready to move on in wiser fashion. But we could also be seeing a ghost. Either way, her submission to the priest suggests that, as far as Ferrara and St. John were concerned, the only way out of the spiral of evil is through Grace, through the acceptance of a revealed salvation and the divine forgiveness of the sins that controlled Kathleen's imagination. This reading would make The Addiction a more seriously religious film than the multitude of movies in which the cross is a Get Out of Bite Free card. For the filmmakers, surrendering to grace is a better solution than Peina's somewhat hypocritical, egotistical approach, which only results in him exploiting a weaker vampire while boasting of his moral superiority. What that means in terms of actual drug addiction we leave to the specialists.

Wendigo considers The Addiction one of the most intelligent vampire films he's seen in some time, and a triumph of style as well. It might not be the best film to recommend to horror buffs, though it has its bloody and brutal moments, but Wendigo would recommend it to anyone who likes serious, philosophical films of any genre.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

On the Big Screen: MEEK'S CUTOFF (2010)

At the Spectrum Theater in Albany this afternoon a scene was repeated that has played out in arthouses across the country. The end credits had just begun for Kelly Reichardt's western, and from the small crowd came exclamations like, "That's it?" "It's over?" "That's the end?" "You're kidding!" and "I want my money back!" That last one may have been meant as a joke, but I think there was some sincere feeling behind it. From what I've heard, these responses are all too typical to Reichardt's laconic, revisionist western. I happen to think they're unfair, but then again, I think Reichardt was asking for it. She's made a rigorously ambitious film -- I could call it the best western ever made by a woman but there isn't enough competition for that to mean much -- but its ambition is too demanding for audiences, even in arthouses, who expect the comforts of conventional drama. To explain the problem, I'll have to spoil the ending, though some will ask what's to spoil -- Meek's Cutoff doesn't even have an ending!

Reichardt's film is about a little wagon train of three families on its way to the contested Oregon territory in 1846. Their guide is the ironically named Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), your typical buckskin boaster, but with little to back up his big words. They're behind schedule, apparently lost and increasingly distrustful of Meek, who insists that they have to depend on him to survive. As they slowly run out of water they begin to think of other options. An extreme option becomes available when Meek captures an Indian who's been stalking the party. Meek, an Indian hater, wants to kill the stalker on the spot, but the menfolk -- the women have no say in the matter -- think that the Indian's healthy appearance means that he has access to a nearby water supply. They vote to keep him alive in the hope of persuading him, despite an impenetrable language barrier, to lead them to water. It's possible, however, that their hostile prisoner might lead them to starvation out of spite, he presumably not valuing even his own life the way white people do. The more the party seems to depend on the Indian, at least for direction, the more Meek's power is threatened, and the more one woman of the party, Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) asserts herself as a matter of personal and collective survival. When Meek finally decides to kill the Indian, it's Emily who draws a bead on him and forces him to stand down. When the party finds a tree growing that appears to prove that water is near, they face a choice between continuing to follow the Indian, whose mutterings Emily interprets as proving that they're on the right track, and going another way. The film closes with a shot of the Indian walking away, without showing us whether the party will actually follow him. Cue outrage.

Obviously, Kelly Reichardt felt that she'd said all she needed to, so why do so many people seem to disagree? The simple answer is that they want a resolution to the story. They want to know if the wagon train follows the Indian or not and makes it to their destination or not. Without those answers, the film seems to them to have merely stopped rather than ended. But while audiences object that the film didn't end properly, no one objects on the ground that the film didn't begin properly. It opens and closes in medias res. We're never formally introduced to the characters and we don't see the beginning of their journey or how they hooked up with Meek. That's not so abnormal, though; we're more accustomed to stories opening in the middle, and it doesn't bother us as long as the story has a clear close. Reichardt's closing is unclear to many people because it doesn't show us the end of the journey. As the old saw says, however, the journey, not the destination, matters, and Reichardt clearly felt that she'd made her point during the journey. If so, what was the point?

When I first heard about Meek's Cutoff my impression was that it was to be a kind of feminist western, and it can still be seen that way. The women's exclusion from decision making or even from necessary information is made quite clear, and feminists can certainly make a heroine out of Emily Hetherow for standing up to Meek and, by claiming to interpret the Indian's words, asserting leadership of the wagon train. But while the subordination of women is part of the immediate context, the larger themes of the picture are more broadly relevant. The challenge for all the characters in the story, male and female, is what to do with incomplete information. The women know mostly what the men choose to tell them and the men know mostly what Meek tells them, while the Indian is presumed to have information but can't be understood by anyone. The challenge of incomplete information becomes an issue of trust as well. Why has Meek led the party astray? Is he stupid or insane -- or is it a conspiracy? One character speculates that he might have been paid by the British to keep settlers out of Oregon to prevent it "going American." Once I heard that, Meek's Cutoff suddenly leaped into contemporary relevance, becoming a kind of allegory for American history in general. I got the same impression from the characters' debates over the Indian, whether he could be trusted, whether he was capable of fellow feeling based on common needs. Reichardt is admirably ambiguous about the Indian; she wants us to be uncertain of his motives all the way to the end -- and beyond. I don't think he's meant to symbolize "the Other" or anything more than the inevitable uncertainty at the heart of any collective endeavor. Uncertainty itself is the subject of the movie, which is probably why it must end on a note of uncertainty. We can never expect to be able to act on perfect information all or even most of the time, but we still have to act. For Reichardt, apparently, the best way to make that point is to trap the audience in the moment of decision instead of vindicating any choice as the right one or condemning another as the wrong one. That seems to be her way of saying that the decisions facing Emily and the rest of the party are the kinds of decisions we all have to make, often on no more or no better information than the pioneers have. And that seems like a timely message for Americans in 2011, so maybe it's no surprise that they've largely rejected this film.

They're missing a film of primal austerity, a ground-level, walking-paced retelling of the American pioneer epic that gives the old saga fresh immediacy. In its attention to mundane detail and its resistance to melodrama, Meek's Cutoff strikes me as a kind of neorealist western, or a western on the neo-neorealist model of Iranian cinema, a resemblance at least partly based on the enforcedly modest dress of the American women. But while "austere" is the word most often used to describe Reichardt's movie, it's often quite striking on the pictorial level, thanks to Reichardt and cinematographer Chris Blauvelt. The director mostly eschews the godlike panoramas and craggy expressionism of classical Fifties westerns, but she still makes the most of her landscapes and has an impeccable sense of proportion when showing men, women, wagons and oxen crossing the screen. While hers isn't the sort of script that really showcases actors, Michelle Williams clearly stands out as a woman in whom necessity slowly awakens a heightened sense of responsibility and assertiveness that would make Emily an American heroine if only we were sure that she'd succeed. As Meek, Bruce Greenwood gives an archetypal performance that's really the closest the film comes to stereotyping. He's perhaps too shallow, too easily set up as a foil for Emily, but that's also because Reichardt resists conventional character arcs that would explain, redeem or punish characters. Meek appears to be a fool, but why that is is one of the things we're left uncertain about, as the other characters are. In a for-all-intents-and-purposes wordless role, Rod Rondeaux impresses as the Indian simply by not giving anything away. He often acts like he's in his own movie (in another language) coincidental with the pioneers', but that's probably exactly how the Indian's role should be played.

I could go on listing the movie's virtues, but they'll all go for nought for many people without closure. I'm sure a lot of my disgruntled fellow spectators at the Spectrum liked the film up to the moment the credits started, at which point the film was destroyed. So is closure everything? I'm reluctant to concede the point. If cinema is something other than literature or theater, as should be self-evident, then movies can't be judged exclusively by narrative standards derived from books or plays. But before I get too defensive, I ought to stress that Meek's Cutoff isn't exactly avant-garde. It does have a narrative, and a linear one at that, but the narrative services a theme that doesn't need narrative closure to be stated completely, and might well have been undermined by an insistence on such closure. The film is thematically complete as is, and the finished work is the best western of 2010 (with all due respect to the Coen brothers) and one of the best of this generation.

I don't usually include the trailers for current films, but since a lot of people won't be seeing this one until the DVD comes out, here's a hint at what you're missing, as uploaded to YouTube by MovieTrailersForAll.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

On the Big Screen: SUPER 8 (2011)

Think of a pastiche as a remake of a film that doesn't actually exist. J.J. Abrams's homage -- to use a euphemism -- to Steven Spielberg is just such a movie. For audiences of a certain age, it's impossible not to feel that you've seen it before, and that seems to be the point of the project. Abrams is out to fill an invisible hole in Spielberg's filmography, with the master's approval and the Amblin Entertainment seal. It's an imitation of the director, not a commentary on his work, though Abrams tries to distinguish Super 8 with variations on Spielberg themes. So a young hero has to deal with an absent mother rather than an absent father, and an alien is not quite benevolent. But in all the superficial essentials it's recognizably a Spielberg film (or a Spielberg production) of a certain age, as well as a nostalgic visit to 1979 and its popular music. Moreover, it's self-consciously a Spielberg pastiche or homage. Indeed, Super 8 is nothing if not self-conscious about itself. A film about juvenile filmmakers that is also a Spielberg pastiche could not be other than self-conscious, and its overt self-consciousness about being a Spielberg pastiche and a film about the wonder of moviemaking is part of the big dare that defines the whole project. Abrams knows that he's made a self-conscious Spielberg pastiche and he knows that you probably know it. So he goes further to unveil the mechanics not only of moviemaking but of story construction. A little auteur has read somewhere that giving a character a love interest will increase the audience's emotional involvement with the character. So he recruits a girl to play the romantic interest of "The Case," and the girl will prove to be the romantic interest of Super 8. Abrams is telling us up front that this is a device, a ploy, a bit of that emotional manipulation for which Steven Spielberg is despised by many critics. It's all a part of the dare. The director shows us his bag of cinematic tricks, sets up his self-evidently unoriginal story, and in effect dares the audience not to respond or not to feel anything.

By the time our hero chooses to symbolically let go of his mother -- the scene involves a powerful magnetic field -- one probably has to have the proverbial heart of stone to not cry or laugh. What you do may depend on your feelings for Spielberg or for 1970s genre cinema or movies about moviemaking. My feelings were influenced by the nostalgia I felt for the era portrayed, a largely lost world like Super 8's steel town. However predictable the story was, Abrams had me with his evocation of 1979 -- though the soundtrack was predictably heavyhanded. Super 8 is arguably the antithesis of Rodriguez and Tarantino's Grindhouse: a trip back in time with state of the art effects rather than modern stories told with primitive movie methods -- though "The Case," when we finally see the finished work during the end credits -- seems like a spiritual brother to "Planet Terror" and "Death Proof." There's a touch of the grindhouse to the whole film, a slightly meaner spirit than prevailed in the sort of Spielberg film Abrams invokes, though not entirely alien to the Spielberg of Jaws and Jurassic Park. In a way, Super 8 is a synthesis of some Seventies themes and their presumed Spielbergian antitheses. Spielberg himself tapped into Seventies paranoia in Close Encounters, but his authoritarian antagonists weren't as mean or vicious as Abrams's military villains. Nor, of course, were his aliens, and if anything is offputting about Super 8 it's the juxtaposition of conventional Spielbergian epiphanies with the slaughter of so many other people. Spielberg films are about families rather than communities, and as long as two families were strengthened by Super 8's ordeal the families that were destroyed don't have to matter as much. Abrams is daring us to care, but only about certain people. That's not an issue in a Spielberg film when other people aren't dying all around the heroes. Here it became an issue with me and made an inevitably inferior imitation of Spielberg a little more so.

But Super 8 is still a fairly entertaining "roller coaster ride" movie in the old style with a refreshingly realistic sense of place that seems more three-dimensional than many 3D movies. The kids are consistently amusing if not exactly "mint" in either the film or the film within the film. Abrams is an efficient cinematic storyteller, though he comes up somewhat short of Spielberg's ideal clarity, and his pictorial sense is often inspired. His opening shot sets a tone of loss that's brilliantly simple: a steel mill has a sign boasting of its safety record, adding steadily to the number of days without an accident. But we see a worker change the tally from 479 to 1 and we know something awful has happened. Elsewhere, a crudely drawn, bloodstained map fills the screen until something grabs it from behind and crumples it -- a hand we had thought dead. Moments like these mark Abrams as having great potential that he may realize more completely once he has whims like Super 8 out of his system. That film may prove one of this year's best "summer movies," but I couldn't shake the feeling that Abrams should have had better things to do. This'll do for an undemanding weekend, and you'll probably care the way Abrams dares you to for exactly as long as the movie lasts -- but definitely no longer. It's a thing of the past before it even ends, after all, but at least they knew how to make summer movies back then.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

THE THIRD GENERATION (Die dritte Generation, 1979)

The title of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's satirical political thriller refers both to the three generations of the Gast family we see onscreen -- a retired grandfather with aristocratic longings, a police inspector and a terrorist -- and to what Fassbinder elsewhere identified as three generations of German terrorism. The terrorist gang we see here are presumably decadent heirs of the heritage of the Red Army Faction, aka the Baader-Meinhof gang, West Germany's counterpart to Italy's Red Brigades. I'm not sure what the second generation of terrorists was supposed to be like, unless we're meant to take the family as a metaphor for terrorism. What's definitely clear is that the third generation in either case is pretty screwed up.

After an ominous opening in which Fassbinder oh-so-slowly pulls his camera back to reveal Hanna Schygulla watching TV in an upper-floor office, we're introduced to the motley crew who make up a terrorist cell as the trigger phrase "The World as Will and Idea" compels them to converge on Rudolf Mann's spacious apartment. The trigger tips us off a little to Fassbinder's agenda. It's the title of a famous book by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, a writer Grandfather Gast dismisses as one popular with people who feel they have nothing to live for. But it'd be going to far to say that our terrorists are motivated by Schopenhauer or any philosophy. They're polar opposites (perhaps intentionally so) from the devoted young ideologues of Jean-Luc Godard's La Chinoise in that Fassbinder's terrorists spend virtually no time discussing theory. In fact, the only character who seems engaged in ideological reading is a latecomer to the story whose reading of Bakunin makes him the subject of childish teasing. Whether that's because Bakunin was the arch-anarchist of the 19th century, or because the terrorists simply find intellectual aspirations contemptible is hard for me to say. But it leaves you wondering what cause they're fighting for, or if they're out for violence for its own sake.

Rudolf Mann shares his apartment with his girlfriend Ilse (Y Sa Lo), a heroin addict who seems oblivious to the allegedly revolutionary activities being plotted around her. It says something about Fassbinder's social vision that the wretched Ilse is the terrorists' link to the wider, "real" world. We're invited to see the cell through the eyes of Ilse's friend Franz Walsch (Guenther Kauffmann), a half-American ex-soldier who's having trouble joining the civilian workforce, and Franz's sidekick Bernhard Von Stein (Vitus Seplichal), the aforementioned Bakunin fan. These two join the uncomfortable troupe, but while Bernhard seems to be dismissed by everyone, Franz is eventually enticed into the group, being an almost archetypal explosives expert. But Franz isn't ready to be radicalized until he fails repeatedly to find work and Ilse finally OD's herself to death. At that point, he isn't radicalized as much as he's reduced to having nothing to live for.

Heroin is a terrible thing to waste

Franz joins up just as the revolution is about to devour its children. Left to his own devices as the gang fans out on various missions, Bernhard eventually discovers a conspiracy to make any paranoid blissful. The terrorists are planning to kidnap a businessman, P. J. Lurz (Eddie Constantine), for whom the Schygulla character works. Lurz jokes with Inspector Gast that capitalists may have invented terrorists to speed the creation of a more perfect police state -- but it turns out that Lurz wasn't joking -- or else was just toying with an ignorant cop. In fact, Lurz is paying one of the terrorists to keep the cell in operation, and to inform the inspector about their activities, without Gast knowing Lurz's full role in the drama. Now, even as the terrorists finalize plans to kidnap Lurz, dressing themselves up all too appropriately like carnival clowns and fairytale creatures, some members are being wiped out by the police. Can Bernhard catch up to his old buddy Franz and talk him out of walking into a deathtrap? Will the surviving terrorists take Lurz, and if they do, who'll actually be whose captive?...

The Third Generation is set in a world of shit. Fassbinder divides it into acts, each of which has for an epigraph graffiti or overheard conversations from Berlin's public toilets. The director hangs his portrait on an oppressive wall of sound. Nearly every scene has the sound of a TV or radio playing over it, on top of multi-character dialogues, and on top of that Fassbinder piles on Peter Raben's droning score. It actually adds a layer of reality to the cheaply shot scenes -- many of which were clearly filmed in unheated locations -- while furthering the impression that there's nothing but noise in everyone's lives and minds. Fassbinder's terrorists don't stand outside this world to prepare themselves to change it. They're completely immersed in it and embody in themselves all of its corruptions. The result is as complete a deromanticization of revolutionary terrorism as a reactionary could want -- and Fassbinder was no reactionary -- more effective than portraying them as evil masterminds or pitiless fanatics.

P.J. Lurz is ready for his close-up

Fassbinder died not long after his 37th birthday. Had he lived, he would be all of 66 years old today. His early death might be considered one of the tragedies of world cinema -- and could still be thought so -- if not for the fact that in a 13 year career he made 27 films. That's several careers of canonical directors put together, a formidable lifework with which I've just made my first acquaintance. Third Generation seems to have been a reversion to an earlier manner of guerrilla filmmaking after some international arthouse successes, but it shows a directorial eye attentive to the aesthetics of space and the subtleties of both human and camera movement. It combines dispassion and disillusion while touching the depths of Seventies pessimism and paranoia, making it an important cinematic document of its time. Fassbinder himself was arguably one of the most important directors of my favorite decade, so I expect to check out more of his filmography very soon.