Sunday, February 28, 2010

Good Eggs

It has been a relaxing weekend, and it is almost over. This saddens me. I may sill try to cram in a viewing of The Devil's Rain, but pretty much my hefty chunk of weekend downtime is at an end. Bummed though I am, I can't help but think of Levine, a book by Donald E. Westlake that I spent a fair amount of the aforementioned weekend reading, which features, at the end, a Medical Examiner responding to a cop's statement that "[t]he wrong ones die" with this
observation: "Everybody dies...It's a thing I've noticed."

All of which is to say that things sure could be worse. And along with that fact is the feeling, possibly inaccurate, that I've done a fair bit of writing on this blog lately, and so I don't feel terribly compelled to write anything of substance right now, as I didn't, you may have noticed, yesterday or the day before. But I'm cool with that, and I'm not usually. The difference today is that, unlike previous fallow periods, I feel pretty confident that the compulsion will return very shortly, like in say a day or two.

In the meantime, I'm going to take a page from Glenn Kenny's book and post a picture of a meal I ate today, one my wife cooked and which we both thoroughly enjoyed. It's called "egg and bacon pizza", or something like that, but there's not much "pizza" going on here -- all it is, is somebody's brand new way to make eggs even better to eat. As if such a thing were possible! But it was good, as you can probably imagine, looking at that picture, and now I think that The Devil's Rain sounds like a capital idea. Hope everyone had a good weekend, and I will talk to you in a couple of days.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

What I'm Reading Right Now #1

[Click for bigness]

He watched through the glass jalousies as she walked down to the dock, spread the blanket out, sat on it and began to carefully anoint her white legs and arms and shoulders and midriff. She stretched out in the glare of the afternoon sun, quiet as a corpse. The fish jumped. Wind ruffled the bay water. Harry made another drink. He felt restless. He tried to take a nap. He gave up and went down onto the dock. He took the aqua shirt off and sat near her in the sunshine. Maybe she was right about getting a tan. His skin was dead white. His ribs showed. There was a small mat of black hair on his chest. He sat hugging his knees. His shoulder blades stuck out in an angular way. There were two deep dimples on the back of his left shoulder, the scars of bullet wounds.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Cap-Syool Reviews!! Enjoy Them Now!

Here are some for you to read! Will you!?

Dragonwyck (d. Joseph L. Mankiewicz) - This is one of Vincent Price's very early Gothic thriller/melodrama roles (it's also the first film by Mankiewicz). The story is basically that a young woman (Gene Tierney) is overwhelmed by the wealth and smoothness of distant relative and wealthy landowner, Nicholas Van Ryn (Price). Then when she marries him, she finds out he's a crazy asshole. Price is wonderful, as always, and his final breakdown is terrific -- nobody did sweaty, arrogant psychic disintegration quite like Price -- but Mankiewicz seemed a bit too concerned with making his film important -- laying on the plight-of-the-worker stuff a bit too heavy -- and therefore, in his mind (I'm wildly speculating) better than your standard genre film, and the result is that the film sags. There's a terrific efficiency to the best genre films, especially from this era (the film was made in 1946), so that when a film like Dragonwyck makes a transparent attempt to rise above them, it's hard not to see why those other films are so very good.

Summer Hours (d. Olivier Assayas) - This beautiful and beautifully acted French film, about a wealthy French family, whose matriarch passes away in an early scene, struggling to deal with her estate (consisting mainly of a gorgeous country home, and a sprawling collection of artwork), is not actually about family strife so much as it is about losing your past, and how much more meaningful art can be to the individual than it ever will be as art. Charles Berling, as the eldest son Frederic, gets the top marks, but as I said, everyone is superb. And for a movie with such a small, intimate story, there's an incredible pace to it, of the kind that would utterly confuse your run-of-the-mill contemporary thriller filmmaker. Carried along, no doubt, by those performances. Top shelf.

Johnny Guitar (d. Nicholas Ray) - A quite strange Western from the 1950s, featuring Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge as the White Hat and the Black Hat, respectively. A lot has been made of this gender twist on the traditional Western, but the film itself doesn't hammer on any particular point: this is just the story, and these are just the characters. Mind you, its tone is less that of a Western than it is a melodrama, or "women's picture", of the kind that Douglas Sirk made at his most bombastic (which shouldn't be taken as a criticism of Sirk). But if it works, it works, so why complain about bombast, if that's the goal, and the goal is struck dead center? Besides which, any film that features Sterling Hayden and Ernest Borgnine can't be that bad. The fact that Hayden plays the title character who is also the Mysterious Stranger shouldn't confuse one into thinking that Joan Crawford isn't, in fact, the star (she's great, too, as is McCambridge). So what it is, in fact, is a genre mash-up; while that idea tends to yield horror-comedies, or horror-Westerns, or horror-SF, here we have Western-melodrama, which is actually a hybrid with a long history. All of which I suppose to say that I'm a bit curious why so many people think Johnny Guitar is so bizarre.


Extract (d. Mike Judge) - Each of Mike Judge's live-action films (I'm excluding Beavis and Butthed Do America, because I remember that being a bit of a sensation at the time) has taken its own sweet time finding an audience. Office Space and Idiocracy were both dumped by their studios, and each has gained cult audiences of varying degrees of healthiness. His newest film, Extract, actually got a legitimate theatrical release, and still nobody went. Nobody who did go seemed overly taken with it, and my expectations were therefore low. But I really enjoyed it, as it turns out. It's not as near-perfect as Office Space, or as occasionally riotous as Idiocracy, but unlike that latter film it also doesn't run out of steam in the last third. It's consistently genial and entertaining, bolstered by a terrific cast of outstanding deadpan comic performers -- Jason Bateman, J. K. Simmons, Kristen Wiig, Ben Affleck, and the inhumanly attractive Mila Kunis, to name a few. Mike Judge knows ordinary people, and he knows what's so funny about them.

The Children (d. Tommy Shankland) - This horror film was primarily striking to me because it plunks a family down as the only possible victims, and then begins killing them. It's quite a bit more complicated, as well as better, than that sounds, but it's still the aspect of the film that stands out most strongly for me. The gist is, over Christmas an extended family gets together to celebrate, but one of the children has contracted some sort of virus, which only seems to be spread through the other children nearby, and which turns them into blank-eyed killers. This is brutal stuff, especially when the adults start fighting back, which you do sort of hope they'll do, but for God's sake look what they're doing! It's that sort of film, with, it would seem, some deeper implications having to do with abortion, but which I haven't quite parsed, and which may not be totally parse-able.
Dead Snow (d. Tommy Wirkola) - This movie was fun enough, I suppose, but if you're going to make a movie that spoofs other zombie movies, don't get around to the spoofing eventually. Don't play it reasonably straight for half the movie, possibly longer, and then go all zany and madcap all of a sudden. I'd prefer a movie about zombie Nazis in the snow to be played as straight as possible, myself, but if I can't have that I'd at least like a filmmaker who can commit to a tone.
You know, I think I want to withdraw that "fun enough" comment. It is, in a way, but it's also sort of incompetent, and cheap, and thinly imagined. I'd forgive it a bit more if it had ended with the stirring scene of zombie butchery cut to a Finnish folk spiritual song, but they didn't stop there, and all my goodwill drained off.
Gamer (d. Neveldine/Taylor) - Well, it's happened. We now live in a world where you can watch a new film and not see the influence of Hitchcock, or Ford, or Welles, or Chaplin, but rather of Tony Scott. And not the Tony Scott of Crimson Tide, but the guy who made Domino and slapped those motherfucking English subtitles of lines already spoken in English by American actors all over Man on Fire. And all in service of what? A remake of The Running Man. And it's worse than the original.
Take me, Lord. I'm ready. I cannot breathe air with the same people who allowed Gamer to be made. With the two unconscionable bastards who made it, and who joined their last names with a meaningless backslash, Face/Off style, creating in my mind the Hellish image of a bi-headed, quadri-limbed Nether-God, who would thunder its heavy legs across the planet, leaving blasted cities and fallow land in its wake as it tossed back its slavering heads and shrieked its murderous laughter into the cosmos. Such a world is more than my feeble mind can accredit.
Day 37
I awake in the middle of the night. A ghastly storm is assaulting my home, throwing back my shuttered windows, the latches all tinfoil and twine to these blustery and soaking hands! The window....the window is open, and inviting.
Day 38
The television flickers on, unbidden by my hand or mind. Gamer is on. Michael C. Hall is dancing to "I've Got You Under My Skin" while his henchmen, in time to the music, prepare to attack Gerard Butler.
The open, flapping window is streaked with the chilled rains. As flaps the window, so flaps the pages of Al-Hazred's Necronomicon. A book I had destroyed. I know I did. I set it alight and flung its blazing, ashy pages into the sea's gaping throat!! How can it be here now!? And now that kid who plays Butler's controller is on the screen through the window I hear the bleating of the dread Neveldine/Taylor rolling over the distant hills...
The window! The window!!

Monday, February 22, 2010

A Post-Script Regarding Predictability

>There is an element of Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island that I barely touched on in my review, but which I believe needs to be briefly addressed at (slightly) greater length: the ending. I'm going to assiduously avoid spoilers in this post, but I would like to invite anyone who knows the film, or Dennis Lehane's novel, to let 'er rip in the comments, should they so desire, so anyone unfamiliar with either version of the story should be warned that the comments section here could turn into a hotbed of storytelling ruination. A hotbed, I tell you.

The truth is that I believe many people will outright hate the ending. And the further truth, as I implied in my review, is that when reading the novel, I was quite disappointed at the conclusion. I thought, in a sense, that I'd been jerked around. But the film has me reconsidering my harsh judgment of said ending, and most of this is due to the fact that Scorsese foregrounds an aspect of the story in a way that, to people who know nothing about where the story's heading, will make the ending predictable, even a foregone conclusion...intentionally so, perhaps. Okay, I have no way of knowing quite how predictable the film's climax -- the solution to the mystery -- will be to people who don't know the novel. However, it seemed to me that, experiencing the ending as the final moments of a, I believe, masterfully constructed film, the ending, specifically the solution to a complex mystery, has been backgrounded a bit. It's pretty much the exact same ending as the novel (with one interesting jolt to it), but it didn't seem like Scorsese cared about it functioning as a "twist". I think he'd be perfectly happy if everyone predicted what was coming early on, and just wanted to see how the story and visuals built to it. Scorsese has said in the past that while he loves well-plotted films, as a moviegoer, as a director he doesn't have much sense on how to make them. I think he sells himself short a bit in that sense, but clearly his primary interest lies elsewhere. And I think it's hard to argue that his interest lay elsewhere when putting Shutter Island together -- every frame of the film practically shrieks that fact.

All of which, I acknowledge, sounds very much like an attempt to make excuses for what could be regarded as a big flaw in the film. But I wonder, if you do not pick up on Scorsese's clues -- which I think are quite blatant -- and find yourself as bugged by Scorsese's Shutter Island as I was when I first read Lehane's novel, what your reaction would be when and if you revisit the film at a later date. If, in other words, you go in experiencing the film as work of visual art, and not as an unfolding narrative. And by the way, I'm all about experiencing films as an unfolding narrative -- it's one of the main reasons I watch them -- but I also know full well what a given film's greater power can be in the long run. If narrative was all films were about, then very few films would have any rewatch value, and we all know that an overwhelming number of them do. So what I'm arguing for here is Shutter Island's rewatch value, something even I can't gauge, and I loved it the first time around.

But those of you who've seen it, ignorant of where it was did the ending strike you? Did you think, as I do, that Scorsese was relentlessly and deliberately signalling his intentions almost from the start, so that the ending was not quite the left turn that other takes on the story might have been, but entirely of a piece with the intense imagery that preceded it?

Friday, February 19, 2010


In David Edelstein's negative review of Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, he takes a second to place at least a little bit of the blame on Dennis Lehane's source novel. "Dennis Lehane's novel," he writes " a doodle, a Paul Auster Lite breather between his tortured Mystic River and the panoramic The Given Day." What Paul Auster has to do with what's in that book, I don't know, but I will agree with Edelstein on a couple of things about Lehane's work, neither of which are stated outright, but which can be inferred: that Mystic River is a masterpiece, and that Shutter Island isn't as good (I haven't read The Given Day yet). What I absolutely do not agree with Edelstein about is the idea that Shutter Island was, for Lehane, a lark, some inconsequential dash-off that he needed to get out of the way before he settled down to something that mattered. I don't know how you can read that book and not feel to your bones the deep sense of loss, the spiritual tearing that comes with grief, on every page. Where I turned ambivalent to Lehane's novel was the climax, when the hugely entertaining post-World War II Gothic-detective maze reaches its destination, and I was forced to incredulously ask "That's what this was about?"
Yes, that's what it was about, and while I still am not sure the ending is as strong as it could be, either on the page or on the screen, or that there maybe wasn't some other way entirely to do it, Martin Scorsese's film version (written by Laeta Kalogridis, and co-produced by Lehane) makes me feel a little bit like a chump for being so unsure about Lehane's motivation. Before I get into why, I should probably confess something. You see, I think Martin Scorsese -- or "MartSco", as he'd probably insist I call him, should we ever meet -- is a good filmmaker. I enjoy his films very much, and have done so for many, many years. Wait, don't leave! I understand that a past and -- worse, and therefore more importantly -- consistent appreciation of Scorsese's work renders any opinion I have of whatever movie he has out right now null and void (provided that opinion is a positive one), and that the only people who can be trusted to give an honest and clear-headed assessment of MartSco's current work are those who haven't liked any of his movies from the past decade (or so I've recently learned), but please, let me at least finish. These water buckets are heavy.
It's hard to know where to begin talking about Scorsese's Shutter Island. It might do to quote Edelstein again, who laments that the film is "suffocatingly movieish", which is a hell of a thing to complain about. When Edelstein reads Nabokov's fiction, does he complain that it's "too novelly"? If I take him to mean that the film is too bold in its style, then I would ask what, exactly, he was expecting? After all, Shutter Island is about two U.S. Marshals -- Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) -- who, in 1954, are sent out to the titular island, on which can be found Ashcliff Hospital, an institute for the criminally insane, from which has escaped a patient named Rachel Solando, who is, we are told, a very dangerous woman. Daniels is a pretty beat-up looking wreck when we first meet him, and he's also a war hero who helped liberate Dachau, an ex-drinker, and a widower -- his wife died a couple years back, in a fire ("She died of smoke inhalation," Daniels tells Chuck. "Not the fire. That's very important."). So this island, and this asylum, is packed with mentally deranged killers, and, as the film opens, the hospital staff and the prison guards (for Ashcliff is that, too, in a sense) are a bit concerned about the massive stormfront heading their way. So, 1950s, island, mental asylum, deranged killers, hurricane...all well and good, but please, could you tone it down a bit!?
The gist of all this being that I think Shutter Island is beautiful, the most visually arresting film Scorsese has made since Gangs of New York, and the most stylistically consistent, and the most justified and organic in its specific bold choices, since at least Casino, and probably as far back as Goodfellas. With this film, I got the feeling that Scorsese was scratching a particularly nagging itch, one he hadn't quite reached the last time he tried for it, with his, I believe, badly misjudged remake of J. Lee Thompson's Cape Fear. As Teddy Daniels goes deeper into the case, he begins to have some fairly awful flashbacks, and even worse nightmares, about his past traumas in the war, and dealing with the death of his wife. The nightmare sequences, in particular, are gloriously horrible, rich and varied in their imagery, and like all good nightmares, more terrible before we know what they mean than after.
These scenes -- the whole film, really -- are nightmare-as-opera, Gothic horror treated seriously, not as a way to get a few kicks. Scorsese is pulling from a very deep cinematic well for his inspiration here: Kubrick, film noir, Val Lewton, Ingmar Bergman (the very welcome presence of Max von Sydow in the film, as one of the hospital's senior doctors, wasn't the only thing about Shutter Island that made me think of Hour of the Wolf). So it's this self-consciousness, and not just what Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson make the camera do, that is probably what Edelstein means when he talks about the movie being "movieish", but so what? Remember how last year everybody was saying that Inglourious Basterds was really, at its heart, all about movies? And how that was so great and everything? Well, so is Shutter Island. In this film, characters say things, important things, while staring off into the middle distance, like characters in a 1940s melodrama. And watch Mark Ruffalo in the background of an early scene set at the home of Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley); DiCaprio, Kingsley and Von Sydow have pretty much all the lines, but when Ruffalo does interject, he has the jittery bits of business and sweep-the-room eyes of a film noir character actor.
The puzzled look on your face tells me that I'm doing a bad job of describing this -- well, it is difficult to put into words, but the point is that while Scorsese may be wearing his cinematic influences on his sleeve here, and he wants you to notice (though it's plenty okay if you don't), his motives are pure: this is the best way to tell this story, to build this mood, and to oppress you with an atmosphere of violence, mourning, madness, and soul-destroying guilt.
All of which is just more "water-balloon throwing to Marty", or whatever it is people who enjoyed this film are supposed to be doing. If you clicked on any of those links I provided earlier, you'll probably have seen people making reference to the dishonesty inherent in anything positive said about the film, and Scorsese in general, and you'll have seen Glenn Kenny -- who was quite keen on the movie -- wonder if possibly some of his goodwill towards it has to do with his state of mind at the time he saw it. Well, let me offer my own bit of justification for feeling the way I do about Shutter Island: this is the kind of shit I like! I love film noir, I love Gothic horror, stories about storms and the criminally insane, and their possibly evil doctors. And I love it best when it's taken seriously.
I've often wished that I'd never seen The Shining, so that I could still look forward to seeing it for the first time. The very idea that an artist of Kubrick's stature made a straight-ahead horror film on such a grand and chilling scale is something I will always be grateful for. Shutter Island, for reasons that might finally amount to nitpickery, is not quite horror, not literally, but in its wonderfully suffocating moviesh-ness, it recognizes two things very specific to the genre, and even portrays both: that all supernatural horror is a metaphor: for death, our fear of it, of the unknown and our fear of that; and that the truth behind the metaphor is quite often worse than we ever imagined.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Our Boys Need and Deserve Books

The Pocket Book of Science Fiction, edited by Donald A. Wollheim, pub lished by Pocket Books, 1943
I have a scanner now. So I hope you all like book covers and shit.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Deep Cuts: With a Screenplay by the Producer

If I was Gregory Peck, any time I thought back on my two films with Alfred Hitchcock, I think I'd be a little cheesed off. One of the great actors stars of his generation, working with a filmmaker with more than his fair share of masterpieces to his name, Peck nevertheless found himself appearing in two of Hitchcock's semi-duds. The first of those collaborations, Spellbound, is hardly forgettable, but it survives in most people's memory primarily due to the astonishing dream sequence, put together by Hitchcock and Salvador Dali. It's all wonky bicylce wheels and bird shadows and giant scissors, and it's a wonder to behold, but even that sequence is badly marred when seen in the context of the entire film, because each bizarre image is later ruthlessly explained to the audience in one of that movie's many instances of tedious psychobabble. In explaining the dream, Hitchcock and company render it strangely meaningless.
The Paradine Case, the second and last film Peck made with Hitchcock, is not so much forgotten as never bothered with. It occupies space in an interesting limbo, of a sort that every great filmmaker as prolific as Hitchcock has in their cosmos, with Under Capricorn and The Wrong Man and I Confess, movies that nobody seems to truly dislike, but which nobody ever talks about, either (for the record, I love The Wrong Man). Coming to The Paradine Case, as I did, after many years as a Hitchcock fan who has seen the majority of his films, is an interesting, but frustrating, experience. One hopes the movie will be an unjustly ignored gem, of course, but what I found was a film that was not that, but was actually very close to it, and the ways in which it evades greatness, and even very goodness, are exasperating.
The story, briefly is this: Peck plays Anthony Keane, a highly successful defense attorney, or whatever they call those in England, and a decent man, happily married to Gay (Ann Todd). He is called in by friend and colleague Sir Simon Flaquer (Charles Coburn) to take the case of Maddalena Paradine (Alida Valli), who has recently been arrested and charged with the murder of her blind husband. During his subsequent work on the case, Keane finds himself falling in love with Maddalena, and developing a theory -- which he seems ready to find evidence to support, come hell or high water -- that Andre Latour (Louis Jordan), the dead man's valet, is the real killer. In the course of this story, we will also meet Flaquer's daughter Judy (Joan Tetzel), who is quite dubious regarding Keane's motives and state of mind; the petty, cruel, and lascivious Lord Thomas Horfield (Charles Laughton), who is presiding over the murder trial; and Lady Sophie (Ethel Barrymore), Lord Thomas's much abused wife.
So that's the groundwork. As a plot, it's really pretty standard-issue, in some ways, but the side characters, particularly the Horfields, add a great deal of color, both in Laughton and Barrymore's performances, which are typically wonderful, and in the off-plot, but not entirely off-theme, digressions they offer. Barrymore is not just terrific, but heartbreaking, as an old woman whose mind is slipping, not necessarily only due to old age, but possibly due to a lifetime of meekly accepting her husband's cruelty. This cruelty, as played loathsomely by Laughton, is not merely casual but also premeditated. Their scenes together are all the more effective for being infrequent, and their contrast with what turns out, unexpectedly, to be the story's main focus -- the relationship between Keane and his wife -- serves to highlight many of the film's missteps.
See, there's an awful lot of off-the-hook-getting when it comes to Anthony Keane. His wife -- and Simon Flacquer, and Judy Flacquer, and pretty much everybody else -- clue in pretty quickly that he's fallen hard for his client, and while they do sort of judge him for it, and rightly so, they seem to want to give him all sorts of outs. For one thing, when Gay finally confronts him with her knowledge, she tells him that she prays that he's able to get Maddalena off scott free. Not prove her innocent, necessarily -- this seems to be, at best, a secondary concern -- but just set her free, because if she hangs for murder, then Keane will be in love with her forever. If she's free to roam the earth as a tangible, flawed, possibly even murderous, human being, then maybe ol' Keane will eventually come around and go back to loving his perfectly wonderful wife again. Considering Keane's boneheaded emotional transparency, and the utter hash he eventually makes of his case at trial, it's hard for me to see why everybody's so hellbent on giving this guy such a long leash.
That's maybe a pure story problem, or a character problem. For a problem more directly tied to filmmaking, we have to turn to Maddalena herself, and ask "What the Christ does he see in her??" It's not that Alida Valli isn't beautiful, because she very clearly is. The problem is that she's barely in the movie. Maddalena is purely a supporting character, not just compared to Keane, but to Gay, as well, and when she and Kean do interact, and while it's clear that Peck is playing a deepening inatuation, it's in no way clear why, other than that's what the script says to do. There is no real moment between the two of them. Maddalena is an ice queen, rude and distant, even mildly combative. Keane loves her because there's no movie if he doesn't.
The best chunk of The Paradine Case is located in the last forty minutes or so, which I've long held is the best place to put the best part of your movie. This forty minutes, of course, involves the trial itself. The downside of this section is that the details of the case, of the murder, aren't very compelling. The upside is that not only is this when we finally get our one true Hitchcock flourish -- when Latour is called to the stand, and he passes by Maddalena in the dock; it's an extraordinary shot -- but we see how close to making a sort of upper-crust English, by way of Hollywood, film noir Hitchock was with this movie -- it certainly has the look throughout. To put it bluntly, Keane fucks up badly, and he pays for it. Peck plays his moment of crumble brilliantly, and for a while there I thought, for all its flaws, The Paradine Case was going to be something of a classical tragedy, as so many film noirs are. And that's sort of what we end up with, except there's one more moment of that goddamn off-the-hook-getting with Keane, and the last scene of the movie almost makes light of how badly he's made a mess of things.
Along with being the last film Hitchock made with Peck, it was also the last film he made with David O. Selznick, who, by the way, gets a somewhat elaborate screenwriting credit on The Paradine Case as well (see this post's title). Not only did Selznick poke his nose in there, but took a hatchet to the edit, too. So, properly, the final product could in some ways be more accurately called a David O. Selznick film than an Alfred Hitchcock film, although it's highly doubtful that a full and unambiguous David O. Selznick film would have looked this good. In any case, Hitchcock was about to make Rope, and shortly thereafter enter into the amazing work he did in the 1950s. Let Selznick have his bottle, I suppose, but it's still hard not to crave that excellent version of The Paradine Case that's buried in the one we have.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Hey Now Wait a Second...

Huh. Well, anyway. My post on The Paradine Case has been bumped to Saturday night, or more likely sometime on Sunday. Just settle down, I'll do it...

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Good Dog

Or not. Depends of a few factors, really. To discuss those factors, and the rest of Sam Fuller's White Dog, why not head over to Joseph Campanella's Cinema Fist and join in this month's TOERIFC discussion, which begins at 10:00 AM, EST? Huh? Why don't you!?


On another, more personal, this-blog-related note, I think I'm going to unveil yet another series in the next couple of days. It's called "Deep Cuts", and it's quite uncomplicated. I simply watch a film by a notable director and write about it, but in each case it will be a film that, for whatever reason, is not that well known. For instance, first up will most likely be Alfred Hitchcock's The Paradine Case. Not well known, and not well liked, either, although that last element doesn't necessarily need to apply to all the films in this series. Anyway, look for it on Friday or Saturday.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Who Did What?

A few weeks ago, I watched The Tenderness of Wolves, which bears the credit "Directed by Ulli Lommel" (or the German equivalent). I find this to be a curious credit, for a few reasons. One is that the film was produced by Rainer Werner Fassbinder -- so produced by him, in fact, that he goes all the way to "presenting" it, too -- and features many members of his regular cast, such as Kurt Raab, El Hedi ben Salem, Irm Hermann, and others. Also, it looks just like a Fassbinder film, with its deceptively plain and casual camerawork, colors that are drab except when they're not, and so on. Further, while I haven't seen any other Ulli Lommel films, I did see a trailer for his movie Curse of the Zodiac, which looks like it was shot on camcorder by Jess Franco, when he was doing image tests in order to get Snake Woman just right.

I realize that all of this means less than nothing, but there are a couple of other clues that, while also meaning nothing in themselves, contribute to my belief that maybe Fassbinder was behind the camera during shooting of The Tenderness of Wolves more than anybody is letting on. One bit of evidence is nothing, a mere trifle: on the DVD commentary track, which Lommel shares with Willim Lustig, Lommel says, over a particular shot, "Isn't that a beautiful shot?" Now, yes, he could very well be tooting his own horn, but the tone in which he says it makes it sound more like he was admiring someone else's work. The cinematographer, Jürgen Jürges's work, quite possibly, though I don't remember him being mentioned.

Meaningless, I know. But early on, when Lommel is explaining how the film came about, he says that Kurt Raab was fascinated by the film's subject, serial killer Fritz Haarmann, and through German tax shelter/film funding laws, Fassbinder had a surplus of cash, and wanted to make a movie fast. Raab pitched the idea to him, but Fassbinder demured, saying the material was "too controversial", and took the producing position instead, passing the directing reins off to Lommel. And I'm sorry, but when did Fassbinder ever give a shit about appearing too controversial? I'm hardly an expert on the man, but it has always seemed to me that Fassbinder always made precisely the kind of movie he felt like making, controversy be damned, and, in fact, knowlingly courted that kind of reaction not a few times. So why in the world would this material suddenly make him blanch?

Of course, there is precedent for this sort of thing in Fassbinder's career, although going the other way. Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? is credited to two directors: Fassbinder and Michael Fengler. However, I've been told by people more educated than I that Fengler really was the director on that film, and Fassbinder was happy to co-write the script and then occupy the sidelines. And that film, even if it was helmed solely by Fengler, looks and feels exactly like a Fassbinder movie, as well.

So who knows? I don't, but do any of you?. It's curious, and is made even more so when I think that a case could probably be made that Raab directed the damn thing himself.

Friday, February 5, 2010

A Place Behind God's Back

In 1595, a long war between Sweden-Finland and Russia has ended. A contingent of Russian soldiers is journeying up north, through unexplored and unportioned land. With them are two Finnish soldiers, working for the Swedish king, to help the two kingdoms parcel out this new land and establish post-war borders. Each side would like as much land for their own country as they can get away with.
Such is the set-up for director Antti-Jussi Annila and writer Liro Küttner's unusual 2008 horror film Sauna. At the center of the film are the two Finnish soldiers, brothers named Eerik (Ville Virtanen) and Knut (Tommi Eronen). The film drops us into the middle of the story's pivotal event, as we're introduced to Eerik as he is murdering a farmer for, he claims, betraying Sweden by withholding supplies. The murder is brutal, and Knut witnesses it, entering the farmer's home after, we learn, locking the victim's daughter in the cellar. Why did he do this? Why did Eerik kill the farmer? We know what both of their stated reasons are -- Knut claims to have been protecting the girl from his brother -- but Annila and Küttner don't let us come to know either man, or either victim, before it's all over. What we learn in subsequent flashbacks, to what led to the murder, alleviates our curiosity only slightly. And what could the reason possibly be for Eerik, after promising his brother that the girl will be released from the cellar, to leave her locked away, only revealing the truth to Knut days later?
War, would seem to be the filmmakers' answer. Sauna has a disconcerting tendency, in its early-going, to appear simple-minded and pleased with its own pseudo-profundity. After killing the farmer, Eerik whirls on Knut and says, "This is what happens in peacetime!" Yes, well. Thankfully, Annila and Küttner rather quickly realize what actually interests them, and Sauna becomes a progressively stranger take on the idea that the only terminus for a soul stained with guilt is horror. Unending horror, even, unless you're careful. And even then...
The Russians and the two Finns eventually find a village in the middle of a black swamp. Knut has by this time seen, or believes he's seen, a mud-spattered girl -- the farmer's daughter? -- appearing unexpectedly among the quagmire and barren, branchless trees along their journey, and he's professed a disbelief at his brother's recent behavior. Eerik, meanwhile, admits only to wanting to protect his brother and carve out a greater piece of land for Sweden. He's killed, he says, 73 people over the course of the war, including the farmer. He considers his victims "useless". But this village, we'll soon discover, has a population of exactly 73 people. Of these 73, only one is a child. And this group of 73 did not even develop the village themselves, but rather found it in their travels. Whoever did originally live here, they based their existence around the sauna, a squat white building stuck in the middle of an expanse of black water. In Finland, Eerik says, both the newly born and the newly dead are taken to saunas, to wash away the past.
Both Ville Virtanen and Tommi Eronen are wonderfully craggy and haunted as the brothers, with Virtanen resembling a young Max von Sydow at his most fit-to-bust, and Eronen a young Gary Oldman at his most despairing. Annila paints his film in blacks and whites and browns, because what other colors could he use? Even the blood, when it flows here and there throughout, and begins to pour at the end, comes out a corrupt black, except when it mixes with a purifying stream. The whole film, in fact, slowly and subtly becomes an attempt to dispense with corruption, as first Knut, and then Eerik, seek absolution, and whatever punishment is connected with it, by entering the mysterious and dreadful sauna. What follows, and surrounds, this decision -- and whose decision it was is, I think, unclear -- is horror of a particularly cutting and bizarre sort, the supernatural revealing its full form without revealing what it is, or why it's here, or even what it wants.
We know what the brothers want, but their simple desire for cleansing not only comes with an enormous price, but may in fact be a red herring. There is a lot at play in Sauna: not just guilt and redemption, but questions of war, of land, of family. The sexuality of one of the Russian soldiers comes into play, as well as, by extension, the sexuality of Knut. The one child in the village is a girl who disguises herself as a boy. Eerik has a wound on one hand which may remind you of the wounds suffered by a certain well-known historical and religious figure. All of these themes and story elements bounce off each other, and connect, or don't, in tight but perplexing 80-some minute film that contains in its final moments one of the most haunting and chillingly imaginative horror images I've seen quite a while, outside of the films of Guillermo del Toro.
Regardless of the possibility that the source of the film's horror may have no connection, and may possess an animal indifference to, the jeopardized souls of Eerik and Knut, the fact remains that their fates are tied to the quest for redemption that every honest person spends their life trying to complete, in whatever small way. Most people don't have to journey that far, and many others think they have to travel further than they really do. Others, like Eerik and Knut, have a long way to go, an eternity, and though it may feel like a positive step, the events of Sauna would suggest that merely wanting redemption isn't enough. It depends on what you need to redeem, and where you seek it out. If you look for it in the wrong place, you may bring down more than just yourself.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Born For It

Watching Edmund Goulding and Jules Furthman's Nightmare Alley the other day, and watching Tyrone Power's life play out in line with an unfortunate fidelity to Joan Blondell's Tarot reading (and cringing to the point of laughing at the film's climactic line), I realized that this film and A Face in the Crowd are not exactly dissimilar, are they? Separated by ten years, each tells the story of a man who rises from humble, at best, beginnings through will and a talent for immorality. In Nightmare Alley (based on a novel by William Lindsay Gresham), Tyrone Power plays Stanton Carlisle, who, in the beginning of the film, is working at a carnival as the mouthpiece for Zeena's (Blondell) mentalist act. It's a basic bit of business, but when he gets wind of another, more intricate and ingenious form of the act that Zeena used to perform with her now-perpetually-soused boyfriend Pete (Ian Keith), Stan takes steps to obtain that secret for himself. What happens to Pete is something Stan writes off as an accident, but I have my doubts.

Meanwhile, over in Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg's A Face in the Crowd, Andy Griffith (in a scorching performance that I'd wager a fair amount of the population isn't even aware he ever gave) plays Lonesome Rhodes, whose first moment on-camera shows him giving such a nasty, mean-dog look to his wards at a dusty old Southern jailhouse, that it's not hard to see that his good-old-boy demeanor, when faced with interested journalist Patricia Neal, hides a pretty grimy soul. Like his spiritual cousin Stan Carlisle, Rhodes is about to rise to the top, putting on a sweet face and exhuding down-home charm, and rising up through radio and into television, as a beloved, influential Will Rogers-type, with a heart of coal.

What's interesting is that Tyrone Power had such an open, nice face, when he needed it, and he's such a gregarious fellow in the early going of Nightmare Alley. Carlisle is one of those guys, like the anti-heroes (which is being kind) of Donald E. Westlake's novel The Hook, who are more or less perfectly content to live their lives as decent human beings, until the opportunity for advancement forces them to realize that they're actually pure bastards -- they'd just never gotten their shot before.

One is tempted to say the same thing about Andy Griffith and Lonesome Rhodes, but A Face in the Crowd actually preceded The Andy Griffith Show, after which point Griffith was nationally embraced as a sweet father and wise and funny Southern gentleman. Prior to his turn as Rhodes, Griffith did have success as a comedian and actor, and this was played on for A Face in the Crowd, but what a bombshell it would have been had the film come out in the mid-60s, when his hit (deservedly so) TV show was in full swing. The point is, Power feels like a gentle soul in Nightmare Alley's first half, and Griffith doesn't. We know Andy Griffith, of all people, is no good in his film. Power's shift towards casual amorality is more of a shock, though Nightmare Alley's colorful, shading into grotesque, early carnival setting does almost act as that film's version of Griffith's feral expresion.

In any event, both men, Carlisle and Rhodes, do maintain a level of humanity, or try to, throughout each film, but they need a hot piece of ass to kick their hearts in gear (this works better for Carlisle than it does for Rhodes), and even then they have to throw someone else over in order to get started. But mainly, they want power, and money. Each is willing to pervert, or manipulate, grand American themes -- faith in Nightmare Alley, basic human values as it applies to the political process in A Face in the Crowd -- to do it, and each man gets their hash settled pretty good as a result. At least they got to enjoy their place at the top of the carnival for a little while.