Tuesday, March 26, 2013


I have been struggling to understand Robert Bresson for some time now. This implies a level of bafflement I don't necessarily feel, but any time I watch one of his films, I usually do think "What is he doing here and why is he doing it?" at some point along the way. And yes, I'm aware that there's a wealth of material on the man and his work that I could read to ease myself along, but I've kind of taken Bresson on as a personal challenge. The actors, usually non-professionals, directed to be blank-faced and emotionless even in moments of extreme distress, the curious decisions to choose this image over that image, when that image would appear to be the point, and this image would appear to be irrelevant, and so on -- all of these aspects of Bresson's films have worked to both keep me at arm's length and demand that I move in closer. It's been too long since I've seen either Au Hasard Balthazar or Pickpocket, my first two, and probably most people's first two, Bresson films, for me to reliably record those experiences, but I do remember watching Lancelot of the Lake and feeling close to the level of bafflement that I earlier tried to deny. Why were his actors like this? The obvious choice in that case to scale the epic fantasy of King Arthur way, way down didn't really get at the heart of anything much, in terms of my own questions, and it left that film for me as a mysterious puzzle, one I chose to be dismissive of, because that's how knee-jerking works.

Later, L'Argent, his last film, did a whole different kind of number on me, and as I write this I wish I'd had a copy of that DVD handy, because I felt at the time, and still feel, that as far as my own connection goes L'Argent holds all the clues. It's such an astonishingly strange, and undeniably compelling, piece of work that it feels like it has a lot more hooks and ledges to grab onto. It also contains perhaps the apex of Bresson's style of directing his actors, in a courtroom scene with the murderous protagonist played by Christian Patey. A sentence has been delivered, and he spits out a condemnation of the court, then pivots like a robot to be escorted away. "Quit expecting me to stop doing this," Bresson seemed to be telling me. "This is why I'm here." Plus, too, I remember L'Argent containing more than the usual share of shot choices focusing on something ordinary -- a close up of a bowl of milk, or was it water? being passed from one person to another -- when more seemingly vital drama is occurring just over there, out of the frame. It became very clear to me as I watched L'Argent that Bresson wasn't dicking around, but perhaps I was.

I can't claim that I jump on any opportunity to revisit Bresson, but I certainly don't turn up my nose at them, either, and one has been provided to me by the good people at Criterion, who today have released his 1956 classic A Man Escaped on DVD and Blu-ray. I'd seen it before, probably around the time I saw Pickpocket and etc., and along with the whole of L'Argent and the occasional Python-esque violence of Lancelot of the Lake (as well as one of the least welcome sights I've ever encountered, about which I shall say no more, from The Devil, Probably), this one has lodged in my brain most securely. Watching it again, it's also by far Bresson's least mysterious, at least in my experience (I understand his earliest films are far more traditional and accessible than the films he'd become known for). L'Argent I suppose would be the Advanced Studies course, and A Man Escaped the 101 class, which is not a comment in any way on its achievement.

But it's all there, or nearly. A Man Escaped stars Francois Leterrier as Fontaine, a member of the French Resistance during World War II who has been arrested by the Germans for planting a bomb. He's facing almost certain execution, but whatever passed for due process among the Nazis still has to be seen to, foregone conclusion or no, so in the meantime Fontaine will spend his hours in prison, mostly among other Resistance fighters. Immediately, however, Fontaine is determined to escape, and A Man Escaped is, indeed, a prison break film, as well as a film about process, in this case the process of planning -- and re-planning -- that prison break. If you allow for some, or even a lot, of simplification, Bresson's style could be reasonably described as an ascetic one, and while it's not at all difficult to make an argument for its appropriateness in any one of his films, you'd have a hard time convincing me that it isn't most plainly at home in A Man Escaped, because what is prison but enforced asceticism? (So is poverty, hence its stylistic applicabality across much of his work.)

So we watch Fontaine endlessly, relentlessly, prepare to do what he is assured by his fellow inmates is an impossible task. The title of the film indicates where this is all going, but even without that you might figure it out anyway. A very stark form of Christianity -- which is not to say judgmental, but rather agonized -- was always part of Bresson's artistic make up, and if ever that hard faith softened, it's here, when Fontaine talks about his assumed escape (he never seems to doubt himself) as being "born again." Hard to miss the parallels, or the metaphor. What's so interesting about the way Bresson approaches this in A Man Escaped is that while he may directly explain that metaphor, he also refuses to give the audience what it would expect in terms of context. We of course know why Fontaine is a POW, and we know, one would hope, the basic history of the situation, but of Fontaine's past we know nothing, of Fontaine's spirituality we know nothing. If he had religion before, he didn't take it as seriously as he does the Religion of Escape. But of course, for those with faith, trauma can either demolish it or strengthen it, and without any context for Fontaine outside of his imprisonment it becomes easy to imagine the 100 minutes we see him contained in that cell as constituting the entirety of his life, with its grief and hope and dread and pain. He gets through it, and escapes. To what? If his imprisonment is his entire life (which, Fontaine being a fictional character who doesn't exist outside of this film, it is) then his escape, which ends the film, ends his life. And takes him to the next part.

In the interest of not completely disappearing up my own something-or-other here, I would say a less abstract comparison to all this is in C. S. Lewis's A Grief Observed, which chronicles his severe crisis of faither that followed the death of his wife. In that book (which feels like something we should not be allowed to read, but there it is) Lewis battles God and terror and loneliness and intense emotional pain, and then he breaks through it and begins to gather up the cards and rebuild the house (that's Lewis's metaphor, not mine; I merely restated it clumsily). This is what Fontaine goes through, with a great and admirable calmness. His blankness indicates only that he's smarter than those keeping him locked up.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

I Found Myself

Many years ago, I was talking to one of my brothers about bad movies, and writing about them, not in the overly profane, comparing-them-to-deviant-sex-acts-or-scatological-situations way that's all the rage now, but in a way that is genuinely clever and funny, for a thing some of us Ryans were doing at the time that is frankly none of your business, and I was having trouble taking part because I hadn't seen any movies that would lend themselves to such a thing. I had recently rewatched Predator, a film that I realize is regarded as a classic of sorts but which I've never thought a great deal of, but that one didn't apply really because, I said, and my brother agreed, "It is what it is." Now this was without question an extraordinarily insightful thing for me to have said, and I stand by it. Predator has no pretensions about it, and is efficient enough, whatever I think of it, about the job it sets out for itself, and on at least one real level I don't actually think it's bad. I just don't like it very much.

I thought of this today as I ground my way through four films recently released to Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Each of the films is a type of, I guess, grindhouse, or exploitation, fair, and European in origin, and cheaply and indifferently made. Each one also left me thinking not quite that "it is what it is," but rather something that, when removed from its original, kind of dumb metaphysical context in Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, and applied here renders an even more distanced, disinterested, aesthetically spiritual judgment: "This is this. This ain't something else. This is this." In The Deer Hunter, Robert De Niro's Mike is talking about a rifle bullet, and I've always agreed with John Cazale's Stan when he says in reply "'This is this!' What the hell is that supposed to mean!? 'This is this!'" and then he says some other stuff I'd get in trouble for repeating, but as far as gists go, I'm with Stan. But anyway, as it pertains to Oasis of the Zombies, Zombie Lake, Schoolgirl Hitchhikers, and Zeta One, "This is this" sums things up rather nicely, I think. Or maybe, I'm afraid.

Because what good is it to say "Well these movies are terrible"? Beyond it being a reasonable thing to say to someone who asks you "Are these movies good?", it offers nothing to anyone who hasn't seen them but might have reason to be fully aware of what they'd be getting into if they chose to take the plunge. They are far from the only films of their type, after all. But having to "say something" about these four films is exactly the position I now find myself in, and I have an uneasy feeling that I've offered up the preceding three paragraphs by way of an excuse.

Zombie Lake (d. Jean Rollin) - Oh, but look! This one was directed by Jean Rollin! I have gone on record on a few different occasions about my love and admiration for the frankly stunning horror films made by this great French director, and if come to from a vacuum there would seem to be no reason to believe Zombie Lake wasn't simply the next great Rollin film for me to enjoy. But this film was masterminded by Jess Franco (about whom more in a minute), and is one of two Rollin films recently released by Kino that he made under a pseudonym (the other one, well, about which more in a minute). Franco is not a filmmaker I know very well, but from what I've seen he's the anti-Rollin: unimaginative, crass, interested only in getting exploitation on film, not in filming exploitation, if you get my distinction, not even slick, just a cheap purveyor of garbage. Some people like him I guess. It's still Rollin behind the camera, you might argue, and surely this counts for something. So I'd hoped, but no. Zombie Lake's goofball story about star-crossed Nazi/French World War II love, that somehow or another results in zombies being in a lake, is just a frame on which to hang endless nudity and shots of actors wearing green greasepaint and -- is that tape? -- tape, I suppose, on their faces, smearing stage blood on the necks of actresses. There is no spark, no hint of Rollin's mad, emotionally tumultuous poetry. The finale of Zombie Lake does feature an absurd bit of melodrama that I can actually imagine Rollin, at his best, which this movie is nearly the furthest thing from, making work, or making something out of, but not here. I don't know the story behind the making of Zombie Lake, but it reeks strongly of the product of a great filmmaker needing to work, and who has been given his orders very clearly.

Oasis of the Zombies (d. Jess Franco) - I realize I said of Franco that there would be more in a minute, but I don't actually have anything to add about the man here. Curiously, though, Oasis of the Zombies is a good deal less exploitational than Rollin's cursed Nazi zombies film, and has one or two nice shots, which is one or two more than Rollin found room for. It's ending is even dumber, though, and the only thing I can find of any interest here actually applies to both. Zombie Lake was made in 1980 and Oasis of the Zombies was made in 1982, some years after the zombie genre, as George Romero unintentionally defined it, began. But while both films do feature zombies feasting on the flesh of the living, that's about all Franco -- I'm placing this all with him, as I really don't think Rollin had or cared to exercise any creative freedom on his film -- takes. In both films, the Nazi zombies are referred to as ghosts, and indeed they have an occasional tendency to vanish when defeated (sometimes they burn). And they're zombies because the Nazi soldiers in both films have been cursed, and they're guarding specific areas (a lake and an oasis, respectively), and they only appear when those areas are threatened by outsiders. They're old-fashioned campfire ghost story zombies, which is a thing that, to my knowledge, does not exist anywhere outside of these two films. I admit I kind of enjoyed that, even if I enjoyed nothing else. Outside of the nudity, which I mention favorably only because I want to be honest, and I don't want to be thought of as a prude or a scold.

Schoolgirl Hitchhikers (d. Jean Rollin) - Yeah, so, this one. Here, Jean Rollin very clearly saw no point in even trying. Or perhaps I'm desperate to swaddle him honor beyond a point he would've been comfortable with. He made lots of movies, and lots of sex movies, and I have no particular reason to believe that he came to those projects in a state of misery brought on by his stature as a serious artist being threatened by this gutter filth. It's just that, like Zombie Lake, Schoolgirl Hitchhikers was filmed with no style whatsoever. The only thing that can be said to set this apart as a Rollin film is the setting, which is an old estate in the French countryside that looks exactly like the kind of house that popped up in a number of his great horror films -- and this specific one might well have done so. "Where are the vampires?" I asked myself upon seeing it here. "There should be vampires there." But no vampires, I'm afraid. In fairness, and because I don't want to appear like a prude or a scold, I will note than there's another Rollin connection here, one that is better than any house and possibly any vampire: Joelle Coeur, a jaw-dropping woman who played a real pistol in Rollin's The Demoniacs, among other Rollin films. Here she's paired off with another Rollin regular, Gilda Arancio, and the two trespass into the abandoned French estate for a lesbian tryst, which leads them, of course, into a world of crime. Crime committed with cap guns, apparently.

Zeta One (d. Michael Cort) - If there's an outlier among these four, it's Zeta One, a bizarre James Bond send-up that doesn't even have the decency to in any way resemble any Bond film ever made, least of all the ones that had been made by 1969, when this film was released. The only halfway decent joke I could detect -- and the film is so wretched I'm not at all convinced this was intentional -- was the fact that Robin Hawdon's Bond stand-in never actually seems to do anything, and is intent instead to spend as much time as possible in bed with the various women who throw themselves at him throughout the film. The bad guys are defeated by several of those women, the ones who are aliens I think. There's another planet here I think. Space alien women who are almost always naked must defeat the Earthbound villains because, goddamnit, who gives a shit. There's a strip poker scene early on here that lasts about twenty minutes, at least. I refuse to go back and check, the fuckin' thing is twenty minutes long. Zeta One is a "comedy," of course, but it's a comedy in the same way that Schoolgirl Hitchhikers is a crime film. I'd say this is the one truly painful film out of these four to actually sit through, but also like the other four, you know, "This is this." See it if you want to.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Ethics of War

If I told you that Graham Greene’s 1943 novel The Ministry of Fear featured a plot that included a cake that contained World War II military secrets, murder, bombings, euthanasia, a seance, suicide, amnesia, espionage, the Blitz (featured here as both atmosphere and plot), a sinister hunchback, a suspicious mental hospital, betrayal, grief, terror, and shame, and stuffed all of this into about 210 pages, you could be forgiven for assuming that the book played out, intentionally or otherwise, as some manically incoherent pulp nonsense. If I then told you about Geoffrey Household’s 1937 thriller Rogue Male, and, feeling uncharitably towards it (which I don’t especially, but in the interest of highlighting the differences between the two works, I’ll end as I began) described it as being about a man who is caught playfully aiming his hunting rifle at Adolf Hitler, then escaping, then hiding in a field for 180 pages, you might reasonably conclude that Rogue Male is an eye-straining bore. As I say, this would be reasonable, but, in both cases, wrong, not least because that rhetorical description of Rogue Male is wildly unfair, though it does help to illustrate, to modern sensibilities, my own set of which I seem to be trying desperately to shed lately, how unusual it is.

But the truth is, while Rogue Male -- an acknowledged classic – did occasionally test my endurance and ability to put up with long descriptions of landscape and so on, by the end it is a hugely effective piece of suspense, while managing at the same time to be subtly emotional and mysterious in ways that linger after the book is closed (Household never says that it’s Hitler the unnamed narrator drew a bead on, but given the year and certain geographical and political clues, it’s not hard to figure out; plus if you’re reading, as I did, Penguin’s 1981 reprint with a picture of Hitler framed by cross-hairs on the cover, this provides a helpful tip, as well). Meanwhile, holding up his end of the agreement he apparently had with Household to take their ostensibly quite different in tone premises and somehow make the resulting novels meet in the middle, Greene’s The Ministry of Fear is as somber and contemplative as anything else I’ve read by him. The lack of distinction is worth noting because The Ministry of Fear belongs to that group of his novels that Greene referred to, rather dismissively, as “entertainments.” Of the half dozen or so Greene novels I’ve read, The Ministry of Fear is the first “entertainment” I’ve gotten around to, and I find it amusing that he should regard this book as so different from, say, The Quiet American. The Quiet American is a good deal less plotty, I suppose, but in terms of artistry, and even seriousness of tone, its six of one, half dozen of another. Like Rogue Male, The Ministry of Fear is a wonderful novel that takes as its subject, if you want to look at it that way, the concept of “the ethics of war,” a phrase from Rogue Male. This is a simplification of both books – Greene’s novel, in particular, has a lot of other stuff going on, and many of the best and most psychologically acute passages have to do with the fact that Arthur Rowe, the hero, spent time in a mental institution after murdering his wife – a mercy killing, it was officially decided, to end his wife’s suffering as she slowly succumbed to a terminal illness. Because while Rowe does believe that was his intent, he can never be sure that his motivations were as pure as all that. Was it her suffering he was ending, or his own? Though she sometimes spoke longingly of death, would she in fact have preferred to experience every scrap of life available to her? The decision to kill her was his alone; it wasn’t arrived at jointly. There’s also much made of Rowe’s day-to-day, or minute-to-minute, existence as a man who has murdered, and how this separates him from almost everyone else, and how a murderer, even an ex-murderer, sees things differently, and thinks differently – the one thing a murderer needn’t fear, Greene tells us Rowe had thought before events teach him otherwise, is being murdered.
As far as “the ethics of war” goes, Rowe finds himself thrust into it all, despite his typically Greene-ian apathy. Rowe is not capable, for a variety of reasons, of taking part in the war as other men his age do, but he feels so removed from the geopolitical element that if it weren’t for the bombs raining down nightly World War II might as well have been something regrettable he’d heard about on the radio. But suddenly, there he is, doing his part, as it were, and as The Ministry of Fear progresses, certain villains are taken down, all the way down, but Greene’s tone is never celebratory, or satisfied. Greene was never a rah-rah patriot, or much of any kind of patriot, I guess, at least not in the way we currently define the word, and as a result The Ministry of Fear’s quality as “entertainment” – and I found it very entertaining – is of a particularly mournful type. This man is dead, and while it’s not bad that he’s dead, it is sad that he’s dead. Everything is just so terrible sad. So, too, is Rogue Male, in a sense, but it’s quite a bit more rousing by the end, in Household’s cynical and beaten-down kind of way. Really, the call to arms that comprises Rogue Male’s final moments is almost shocking, which is not to say undesired, when you consider this book was written before there even was a World War II, and it’s ultimately not at all surprising that Household chose not to refer to Hitler by name. Household writes “The ethics of war? The same as the ethics of revenge, old boy!”, and it’s not only easy to understand why the unnamed narrator would feel this way, but what Household is getting at in a larger sense. Rogue Male is a revenge fantasy, in a way, but what’s being avenged is not just the stated motivations of the narrator, but also something that, in 1937, hadn’t happened yet, but would happen, and very soon.
Meanwhile, over in movies, Fritz Lang directed adaptations of both novels: Rogue Male became Man Hunt in 1941, and The Ministry of Fear retained its title but dropped the "The" in 1944. I read both novels recently, and watched both films in the last couple of days, a point I mention because if this experience has taught me anything it's that I might need to rethink my policy on reading novels and then very soon thereafter watching the films they were adapted into, if such films there be, or even of reading the novel first, ever. On an intellectual, or formal, or aesthetic level, or some kind of level somewhere, I understand that films based on novels must stand on their own, and should be judged separate from the source, and that a fidelity, any kind of fidelity, to that source is, or may be, irrelevant. I have understood this as a workable theory for some time now, but have repeatedly failed to put it into practice. If I'm listening to someone complain about a film adaptation that I liked, based on a book I haven't read, I'm able to make the case pretty forcefully. Similarly, on the rare occasions that I read the book after seeing the film, it's impossible to whip up the same kind of frustration over changes made, because no changes have been made. If I liked the film, and later see how many liberties were taken, my enjoyment is pretty much unaffected because I got to the film first. The book and film are safely independent of each other. But I can't apply that logic when coming at it from the other direction. All of this is a lead up to saying that I found watching Man Hunt to be an exceptionally frustrating experience. Lang and screenwriter Dudley Nichols took Household's story of a man hiding alone in the English countryside and they removed the countryside and gave the guy some buddies. So the isolation is gone, which in Rogue Male is not just immediate to the character's situation, but something of a state of mind he'd lived in, even when other people were around, for some time. Why the narrator is like this is actually the novel's mystery, and so the tone of Man Hunt is completely different. It's downright jolly at times, or at least Walter Pidgeon, who plays the hero (here given a name, Alan Thorndike), is. (There's also a thing in the film with Walter Pidgeon, a Canadian, playing an accent-less Englishman, and Joan Bennet, an American, playing an unfortunately accented Englishwoman, but I'm not overly interested in bitching about that sort of thing. Besides, George Sanders, an Englishman, plays a Nazi, and if you're forced to trawl for your Nazis among a pool of English and American actors, I'd say George Sanders counts as a dream come true.) In Rogue Male, the narrator makes the unlikely claim that while out hunting in the hills of an unnamed European country, one that is pretty close to Poland when you get right down to it, he spotted -- well, let's just say Hitler -- he spotted Hitler in the distance, on the grounds of a Nazi-occupied estate, and he thought, great hunter that he was, it might be fun to see if he could get close enough to take aim at the terrible man, just to see if he could do it. He insists he never had any intention of pulling the trigger, he had no political or moral force driving him, and the whole thing was just what he calls a "sporting stalk." Much of the novel plays out with this as the at least tenuously accepted motivation.
However, it turns out later that, no, the narrator is lying to himself, as he slowly realizes. He would have pulled that trigger, had he not been stopped, and he would have been right to do so, and he had every reason under the sun to want to. What Lang and Nichols had to face was how to give a sporting type of fellow like this that angry fire. Because I've realized two things about Man Hunt, despite the frustration I felt while watching it. One is that Pidgeon, all goofy charm not unlike a Long Chaney, Jr. character, is acting the part as some approximation of what the narrator in Household's novel keeps claiming he is, but isn't, or no longer is. The second is that as a technical challenge, adapting Rogue Male to film is no small thing. As I read the novel, knowing there was a film version, I thought that something really interesting, something very quiet and slow, could be done on film with the material (a Malick adaptation was my perhaps too-obvious fantasy). This approach would, in its own way, misrepresent the novel, but it could be great, and would be truer to Household, at least on a surface level, than Man Hunt. But even if Lang envisioned something like that himself, he wouldn't have been permitted to do it, and in any case in order to get the hero in Man Hunt to the same place as the hero at the end of Rogue Male -- which, in my frustration, I was rather surprised Lang and Nichols did -- some big changes had to be made, and the solution they hit on was about as clean and viable as I can imagine. The key is Joan Bennett's character (I refuse to back away from my opinion that she is not very good at all here; accent aside, her grown woman acts like she's about eleven years old), and to function as her equivalent does in Rogue Male you'd have to resort to flashbacks, at a point in the film where that might not be such a hot idea. Household achieves what he achieves through the novelist's freedom of drifting in and out of a narrator's mind, with thoughts dropped like clues, meaningless at first, and picked back up later for examination. Household is also very vague on the matter of The Woman in his story -- we know precisely as much as we need to. To go the flashback route in Man Hunt would have involved almost as much invention from Lang and Nichols as we get with the addition of Bennett's character anyway.

Forgive me if I'm letting my fascination with the technical aspects of adaptation crowd out other, possibly more interesting points, but I felt more positively towards Man Hunt in its last few minutes than I'd thought would be possible during the previous ninety, and I had to figure out why (one reason, no doubt, is that Lang and Nichols kept Household's wonderful climax, pretty much intact). But in the wind up of all of this, there’s also something to Lang’s version of Household’s previously mentioned “shocking” call to arms. In the novel, the very ending of the novel can be seen as quite subversive, if you imagine yourself reading it in 1937, without the knowledge of subsequent history making it all easier to digest. In 1941, though, the conflagration was well and truly blazing, so Household’s concept – which, why beat around the bush, it’s right there in the premise, he’s going to take his rifle and finish the job he started – becomes, in Lang’s film, simply the dramatization of a fantasy the majority of the globe had by then started to entertain. It’s kind of amusing, though, to see Lang put an almost-official stamp on it by making Thorndyke join the military first, and turn it into war-time propaganda. Though of course there’s also a practical element – Household’s nameless narrator didn’t have a war to walk back through, after all. Which is sort of the point in the book, but could no longer be the point in Man Hunt.
On the other hand, Lang’s Ministry of Fear, which Criterion recently released on Blu-ray and DVD, is a bit harder to break down. Once again, you have an almost complete tonal shift, from Greene’s preferred dank, crumbling London that has absorbed the terror of German air raids into daily life, through which wanders a man who has similarly absorbed guilt into his constant make-up, to something not exactly jaunty, but certainly more light. Ray Milland (whose character is named Stephen Neale in the film, not Alan Rowe, in one of those arbitrary changes I’m never able to understand) is a bit quicker with a wisecrack than Greene’s take on the character – he even possesses charm and the gift for seduction. Neither of those attributes could be further from the mind of, or less missed by, the man in the novel who would much rather stick to his routine, depressing as he realizes it is, and not be bothered. Part one of Greene’s novel is called “The Unhappy Man,” for Pete’s sake (a subsequent section of the book is called “The Happy Man,” but in that case the man question has lost his memory and therefore finds regret a little harder to come by). This may be a function of being played by Ray Milland, I don’t know, but I’ve always liked him, and he plays the role well. The problem is that the role has been neutered. In the film, he didn’t feed his wife poison over a period of time until she died, leaving him to wonder over his own motives for the rest of his life. He bought the poison with that intention, but couldn’t go through with it, only later to discover that his wife had found it and deliberately poisoned herself. So he’s guilty of nothing more than a brash purchase, though he still landed in a mental hospital and feels the guilt of his share, and more, of the responsibility, as, I imagine, would anyone. But this makes it much easier for the audience to take him at face value, and there’s nothing about him that’s left to wonder about. All of which is a sign of the times the film was made, and while Ministry of Fear doesn’t have the air of propaganda about it that Man Hunt finally does, I’d say it’s safe to assume the choice to soften his crime came from the desire to not have the guy who was trying to stop Nazis be morally questionable himself. Other than this, the plot matches Greene fairly closely, with key sequences lifted straight from the page, but that one tonal shift changes everything.

And who cares? I do, apparently, but I think, in part, that’s my problem. Not to say the movie isn’t flawed (once more either the lead actress fails Lang or Lang fails his lead actress, because Marjorie Reynolds, as Austrian refugee Carla Hilfe, put me in mind of Joan Bennett in Man Hunt, which, see above), but Lang’s Ministry of Fear is constructed as a light, wrong-man suspense thriller and if I hadn’t read the goddamn book, it would've played like one, just fine. I guess. I'm assuming. It does have some terrific stuff, particularly Lang's use of darkness and point of view in the climactic shoot out (honestly, at least two of his choices in this sequence are just magnificent). Give it a year, and I'll check it out again. But whether or not I appreciate it more, I suspect I'll still miss what's gone of Greene's novel: the sad, determined whisper that "This is war."

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Worst That Could Happen Is, You'd Lose

In 1966, Esquire published a very short and, it would turn out, slyly influential story by Bruce Jay Friedman called "A Change of Plan." In the second paragraph of that story, a premise is laid out. The main character is a man Friedman refers to only as Cantrow, and he has just married a woman who Friedman doesn't name at all. They're driving South from New York to their beachside honeymoon locale, and in the few lines of the story given over to that long trip, Friedman cracks his story open:

Only once had they stopped, for chocolate frosteds, Cantrow tipping his into her lap. With soaked shorts, she broke into laughter, then chuckled her way through five more towns. This is the kind of sense of humor she has, Cantrow thought. And I didn't even catch that.

"A Change of Plan" would, six years after its publication, become the basis for director Elaine May's second film, with a script by Neil Simon, called The Heartbreak Kid, and starring Charles Grodin as Lenny Cantrow, the man who one, maybe two days into his honeymoon with new bride Lila (Jeannie Berlin), falls in love with a young, stunningly beautiful, blonde college girl named Kelly Corcoran (Cybill Shepherd). He is not tortured by any moral tug-of-war, but is rather immediately determined to throw over his wife and scoop up Kelly. Simon's script, more than Friedman's story, would form the basis for a 2007 remake, also called The Heartbreak Kid, written and directed by the Farrelly brothers. The less said about this film the better, though it will be necessary to say a few things, the first thing being that it is completely beyond me what could have sparked the Farrelly brothers' creative drive here, other than perhaps, even probably, one Farrelly turning to the other Farrelly and saying "Remember that movie The Heartbreak Kid? I don't think it had any cum jokes in it." Eureka, and so on. Whatever the case, on a conceptual level their remake of The Heartbreak Kid is a goddamn nightmare, because it takes Friedman's story, and May and Simon's 1972 film, and turns it into a romantic comedy, albeit one with a punchline that functions on that level and no other, whereas Simon and May, via Friedman, made one of the least romantic films imaginable.
In the 1972 film, Lenny Cantrow is summed up rather nicely in a line spoken by Eddie Albert, who gives a marvelous performance as Kelly's wealthy father. When presented with Lenny's intentions towards his daughter, he says "It's not that I disapprove of you. There's not one goddamn thing I like about you," and indeed The Heartbreak Kid would send the "there are no likable characters" crowd straight to the fainting couch. Not that there aren't any, but Albert's Mr. Corcoran (well I liked him) is defeated, and Lila, the wife Lenny almost instantly tosses aside, is, well, she's heartbreaking -- she's a little bit annoying, is her biggest sin. And the film, like Lenny, is almost unspeakably cruel to her. After spending days stuck in their hotel room -- their honeymoon suite -- with a terrible sunburn she acquired on day one, all the while Lenny is pathetically wooing Kelly, Lila gets her first romantic, newlywed night out at a nice restaurant, which Lenny caps off by telling her he's out of the marriage. After sobbing in shocked humiliation for minutes straight, Lenny asks "Better?" It's a hilarious moment, precisely because he doesn't actually care if she's better -- which of course she isn't -- even though he tells himself he does; he cares only that she'll stop and let him go. But more to the point is the fact that as soon as Lenny's done with Lila, so is the movie. After the scene where she breaks down, Lila disappears. She is in fact barely even mentioned again. Because...fuck her? Kind of. The Farrelly brothers film, as many, many people already said when it first came out, is conspicuously gutless next to what Friedman, Simon, and May wrought. In that film, Ben Stiller's Eddie marries the stunningly beautiful blonde played by Malin Akerman, who shortly thereafter turns out to be both a lunatic and kind of mean, leaving it acceptable, even close to pure, that he should fall in love on his honeymoon with a stunningly beautiful brunette played by Michelle Monaghan. Back in 1972, meanwhile, Jeannie Berlin's Lila is neither kind of mean, nor stunningly beautiful. I hope you understand that it gives me no kick to publicly deem a woman less than gorgeous, but the May/Simon film directly and specifically demands that you do just that, and in far less tentative words, even. Pile onto that the fact that Elaine May (Berlin's mother)* at the time looked, and knew she looked, and I'd say intended you to know she looked and to know she knew she looked, closer to Jeannie Berlin than Cybill Shepherd.

So The Heartbreak Kid, 1972, is that kind of film. Which is to say, it's all by itself as that kind of film. It's mean, though it's meanness is to a purpose, which is to illustrate and vivisect a particular kind of male sociopathy, the kind that posits, "Well, I deserve better sex," which translate to "Well, I deserve different sex," which further translates to, in this particular instance, "I deserve to have sex with Cybill Shepherd when she was 22, and anything else is beneath me. Everything else is beneath me," and that the Lilas (and the Mays?), shattered to the ground, are legion. The films great discomfort, and much of its comedy, comes from Cantrow being portrayed as a man who is convinced he is not like that, that he is instead a great romantic, because he wouldn't be able to function in the face of his own awfulness, though one suspects he'll one day figure out that trick (for the record, Kelly's awfulness is rooted not in the fact that she sometimes leads Lenny on, but that she knows he's married, and knows she's breaking it up, and if there's a woman somewhere with a name Kelly finds amusing, who is ruined by all this, that will just be a thing that happened). Anyway, 1966, 1972, 2013, no difference, I understand this, but the brilliance of Friedman's original story was to exclude how Cantrow met his future ex-wife, what they were like together, and to sketch out a mini biography of the man from disappointment to unconscious villainy. Friedman's story is very spare, only about six pages long, with months and months of story stuffed into that length. May and Simon's film does it in about 100 minutes, and therefore expands on it, which basically means that the conversation where Cantrow breaks up with Lila and tells her "What I'd really like when this is all over, is to go to dinner" is much longer, and more bluntly comic than Friedman's dagger of a story. Just about everything else is in place, although, intriguingly, each version has chosen a different ending. The 2007 remake went with the punchline, as I've said -- a dark punchline, but still a punchline. Friedman's original ended on that almost shocking turns towards villainy. May and Simon, meanwhile, went with an ingenious blankness, that rather took me by surprise, my reaction being "What?" before I got it. It fits their version of the story better than it would have Friedman's, anyway, because their film highlights Cantrow's genuine derangement, which is of a sort that doesn't inspire pity, as he pursues Kelly to Minnesota. There are moments where it's not hard to believe the man has completely lost it. Friedman has a little bit of that, but he wants you to guess about it (in the midst of all this, I'm left wondering what Friedman's original script for Splash must be like, before professional elephants Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel lumbered in for a rewrite). The Farrellys put it in, because they put something like that in all of their movies, and surround that derangement with more derangement so that none of it sticks. But Charles Grodin makes you wonder not only about what's become of his mind as the credits roll, but how much worse might it have been had he not gotten as far as he does?
The Heartbreak Kid really is spectacularly black, in addition to being a satire of romantic comedies before the kind of romantic comedy it's satirizing even existed. There was a DVD of the film a while back, which has long since gone out of print, and now the only easy way to watch it is on Youtube, from where it could disappear at any moment. I want to preface this next statement by being very clear that I do not believe this is actually happening, but it's almost comforting to believe that The Heartbreak Kid's general scarcity is due to a shadowy Hollywood cabal bent on its suppression. Think of modern romantic comedies. Then think of the modern romantic comedies that are meant to have turned the genre on its head. There aren't even many of those, but I can think of The Baxter and Intolerable Cruelty off the top of my head. Those boat-rockers begin by accepting the premise of the tradition they mean to subvert. The Heartbreak Kid rejects it utterly, violently, and with great disgust. It feels, now that I think of it, like the result of Elaine May watching The Graduate and wishing her former comedy partner Mike Nichols would quit being such a pussy.

*Didn't know about the relation between Berlin and May until it was pointed out to me by Peter Labuza. I'd say the rest still stands, though, and is if anything highlighted by the fact.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Quiz? Quiz!

Dennis Cozzalio whipped up another one of his quizzes. Here are the answers.

1) The classic movie moment everyone loves except me is:

The Passion of Joan of Arc. It’s dumb as fuck.

2) Favorite line of dialogue from a film noir

“So that’s why ya killed her, is it?? Why you!” from Deadly Street Nights

3) Second favorite Hal Ashby film

Samurai Champloo

4) Describe the moment when you first realized movies were directed as opposed to simply pieced together anonymously.

The part in Touch of Evil with that big long shot at the beginning, when the camera pans by Orson Welles sitting in his director’s chair, winking and giving the “A-OK!” sign.

5) Favorite film book

Films In the Dark: American Cinema from September 1982 – April 1983: What Movies Say About You, Specifically by Rodney Smitch

6) Diana Sands or Vonetta McGee?

If Holden Caulfield married Vonetta McGee, his name would be Holden McGee. Wait, that doesn’t mean anything.

7) Most egregious gap in your viewing of films made in the past 10 years

Fart Movie

8) Favorite line of dialogue from a comedy

“If that’s your poop, then what did my doctor just eat!?” from Poop Movie

9) Second favorite Lloyd Bacon film

Whence Flew the Albatross?

10) Richard Burton or Roger Livesey?

Have you guys heard my Richard Burton impersonation? Check it out: “Humph humph humph! I’m gonna punch your face, buddy! Humph humph humph!”

11) Is there a movie you staunchly refuse to consider seeing? If so, why?

Make Way for Tomorrow, because I was in the video store years ago, and I was talking to the guy who ran the place, and I said “So have you seen anything good lately?” and he said “Make Way for Tomorrow is really good,” and I said “Oh yeah? What is that, sci-fi? Bunch of lasers and such?” He said “No, actually, it’s a pretty heartbreaking story about this elderly couple who, because of various financial and familial influences…” But I cut him off right there, because I thought I could guess, and I said “And they travel into the future? And before the old guy hits the button that goes BEEP BOOP BEEP and sends them into the time-hole, he goes ‘Okay Gladys, here we go…make way for tomorrow!” But the guy goes, “No, it’s not…” and I went “Do you see the old lady’s tits at all?” He’s like “What? No. Who are – “ “Save me the chin music, Frances,” I go, “If there’s no tits and no time explosions then fuck all y’all!” Then I stormed out. I was soooo mad, you guys.

12) Favorite filmmaker collaboration

The classic grindhouse duo Hanch Furnbee and Dornis O’Horke. Best movie they made together: Don’t Answer My Question!

13) Most recently viewed movie on DVD/Blu-ray/theatrical?

Poop Movie on DVD, then again on Blu-ray, where it really pops. In theaters: Amour

14) Favorite line of dialogue from a horror movie

“I’m afraid you guessed correctly, my poor little mouse. You see, I am a mummy! GRRRRRRRRRR!” – from The Mummy’s Thigh

15) Second favorite Oliver Stone film

I Will Cart My Dick Around in a Wheelbarrow Without Even Being Asked To

16) Eva Mendes or Raquel Welch?

Ha ha ha aw yeah dude

17) Favorite religious satire


18) Best Internet movie argument? (question contributed by Tom Block)

“I think There Will Be Blood is real good.” “Did you see it in Cannes?” “No.” “I did. It’s not the same movie if you don’t know that Gilles Jacob is within at least a couple hundred yards of the theater. It’s as if a certain magic has been lost.” “Why are you such a fucking piece of shit?” And so on. I’m not going to type out the whole thing.

19) Most pointless Internet movie argument? (question contributed by Tom Block)

“here is some start wars opinon” “ur opin ion about start wars yoda is a dum one” “why dont u dumb ur face up ur ass hole” “that is something like wat jart jart bankes would say” “u wish” “u wish u were hant solor but u ar not as cool but i am hant solor pew pew pew” “that is no how phaser blast soun like they r like this proo proo proo i jus kild jart jart bankes” “u son of a bich” etc.

20) Charles McGraw or Robert Ryan?

My last name is Ryan too.

21) Favorite line of dialogue from a western

“Are those cows? Cows are everywhere out here in the West. God bless this land. This shall be our home.” from No Longer the East

22) Second favorite Roy Del Ruth film

Twice a Woman, Once a Cop

23) Relatively unknown film or filmmaker you’d most eagerly proselytize for

You’ve probably never heard of it.

24)Ewan McGregor or Gerard Butler?

Neither one. The sooner Scotland crumbles into Hell, the better. Who’s with me?

25) Is there such a thing as a perfect movie?

A perfect movie needs the eleven Bs: blood, boobs, barking (I like dogs, but mainly in the distance, not up close), Bakersfield (California, I’ve heard it’s nice), barns, Baal (a lesser demon), boos (scares!), blares (trumpets!), bleats (sheep!), bosses (entrepreneurs!) and BONES, if you know what I mean (skeletons).

26) Favorite movie location you’ve most recently had the occasion to actually visit

The planet Earth. That’s where they filmed most of Poop Movie.

27) Second favorite Delmer Daves film


28) Name the one DVD commentary you wish you could hear that, for whatever reason, doesn't actually exist

I’d like one for Playtime where Jacques Tati says things like “And this was the first day of filming,” and Jean Badal says “No, this was day three.” But Tati is insistent this was the first day of filming! Those two in a room together, just magic.

29) Gloria Grahame or Marie Windsor?

Ha ha I get what you are going for with this one! Up top!

30) Name a filmmaker who never really lived up to the potential suggested by their early acclaim or success

Srdjan Spasojevic

31) Is there a movie-based disagreement serious enough that it might cause you to reevaluate the basis of a romantic relationship or a friendship?

Don’t like Summer Rental? I will no-fooling murder you with a shovel, dickface.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Longer-Than-a-Capsule Reviews: Bunuel, Cross, Ralph!

Death in the Garden (d. Luis Bunuel) - If you dive into the middle of a filmmaker's work, starting with their most famous films and thrashing your way outward, when you first bang up against one of the real obscurities it can be quite a surprising experience.  So it went with Death in the Garden, which Bunuel made in 1956 on, from what I understand, something of a work-for-hire basis.  Not that I'm anything at all like a Bunuel expert, but when you cut your teeth on The Exterminating Angel and L'Age d'Or and That Obscure Object of Desire and Viridiana and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and even the somewhat more straightforward, relatively speaking, Belle de Jour, a genre thriller, which is what Death in the Garden essentially is, can leave you scrambling.  Where's Bunuel in all this?

Well, he's there, don't worry.  I called the film a thriller before, but it's more of an adventure film, of the type that you might associate with John Huston.  A group of desperate, and morally disparate, characters in a South American town find themselves, for various reasons, needing to flee the police-state government that is violently cracking down on the violently restless miners that provide the town with its economy.  There's Chark (Georges Marchal), a mean, cold-blooded rogue; Djin (Simone Signoret), a cold-blooded and mean prostitute with whom Chark shares certain affinities; Father Lizzardi (Michel Piccoli), a morally rigorous priest; Castin (Charles Varnel), a naive but well-ff old man who believes he will marry Djin and whisk her off to Paris, along with his deaf and mute daughter, Maria (Michele Giardon).  Bringing these people together and providing them with reasons to get out of Dodge takes up about half the film, and their immediately disastrous attempt to navigate their escape through the South American jungle takes up the second.  Everything that I find genuinely interesting and compelling about Death in the Garden comes from that second half, and it's rather plain that, apart from a certain interest in a certain brand of social commentary, sort of, that first half exists pretty much only as an excuse for the characters', and Bunuel's, descent into the Green Hell.

Death in the Garden is not a very strange film, but it is occasionally strange, Bunuel sprinkling his core sensibility over the long jungle sequence in a way that's entirely justified.  The characters, all of whom are in way over their heads, moan for food, and find a massive snake, and the snake is killed, and then the snake's corpse is taken by a mad swarm of red ants -- Father Lizzardi watches in horror as the headless snake is made to writhe as if reanimated by this army of ant puppeteers.  This transitions to a more directly surreal moment involving a postcard, though this isn't pure surrealism as their is a point-of-view justification, and therefore explanation, for what we see and hear.  A crashed passenger plane is discovered, and while this is certainly something that can happen, this massive, smashed machine spread over a kind of terrain very few, if any, people had previously seen, is the kind of image on which J. G. Ballard practically built his career.  

So Death in the Garden (a "minor" Bunuel film, an assertion it would be hard to argue with, but I nevertheless question the necessity of making such a pronouncement, as many have) is, as far as I'm concerned, entirely absorbing as a near-hopeless tale of survival, one of the better examples of this sort of thing, in fact, though it would be nice if it could have taken up more of the running time.  But whatever, can't be helped.  The old-fashioned nature of the tale, and the old-fashioned twist on morality, is both comfortable and invigorating in its melodrama.  Plus in Father Lizzardi you have another religious figure to throw onto Bunuel's pile of them, though in this case Bunuel -- perhaps merely because he didn't originate the project himself -- doesn't set him up for his particular brand of deeply educated religious satire.  It could be argued that Lizzardi is ineffectual, but if so, then so is almost everyone else, and in any case he's not exactly having his face rubbed in his own uselessness.  This isn't Father Mulcahy in Altman's M*A*S*H, in other words.  His is just one of several straight or broken moral compasses being dumped into the jungle.
It's a Disaster (d. Todd Berger) - Don McKellar's final-day-of-life-on-Earth film Last Night can't be said to have proven as influential a film as, say, Blade Runner, but so far, and just recently, it appears to have directly inspired two films by writer-directors who found McKellar's ability to find not only comedy amid the drama, but romance, even as the seconds tick down to Armageddon, rather exciting.  For what it's worth, I did too -- I think Last Night is terrific.  It's quite possible, though, that it's not a movie that's a fit model for direct inspiration.  The two films I'm thinking of here are Lorene Scafaria's Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, a movie I didn't dislike, and Todd Berger's It's a Disaster, a film I also didn't dislike (it occurs to me now that you might also reasonably include Abel Ferrara's 4:44 Last Day on Earth, a film I thoroughly and actively disliked, but for tonal reasons, if nothing else, should probably be excluded, so fuck it).  But despite the absence of any genuine dislike for either movie, Last Night is such a specific film with such a specific approach that to want to replicate it should, or anyway will, also mean that, whether you like it or not, you've revealed yourself as a filmmaker who wants everyone to know that you've seen and enjoyed Last Night.  Seeking a Friend for the End of the World steals McKellar's ending, for example.

It's a Disaster does not steal McKellar's ending, but it's not otherwise bracingly original.  The concept here is that three couples, of the men-and-women-in-their-late-20s-or-early-30s variety, are meeting for brunch at the home of one of the couples (Erinn Hayes and Blaise Miller) who host these things pretty regularly.  This time around, though, we know that tensions will be higher than usual because Hayes and Miller are preparing to announce their split.  Adding to the pending awkwardness is the introduction to a new person to the group in the form of David Cross as the new boyfriend of Julia Stiles, who's an old friend of Hayes and the other two women in the cluster, played by America Ferrara and Rachel Boston.  Throw in Ferrara's comic book geek, conspiracy-minded fiance' (Jeff Grace) and Boston's druggy goofball of a boyfriend (Kevin M. Brennan), and you have a diverse-enough set of personalities bouncing off each other by the time the information comes through that nearby a vast number of dirty bombs have been detonated.  The news gets exponentially worse from there, and the characters then must humorously -- this is a comedy -- come to terms with their pending deaths.

If you can get past the creepingly dreadful thought that It's a Disaster came about because one day Todd Berger thought "You know, the end of the world is really like the end of a relationship," a good deal of fun can be had here.  And it's fun of an almost genuinely uncomfortable sort, because it's not a glib film, really, and Berger is not interested in sliding the rug back under his characters. Now, Miller and Hayes (who is so wonderfully funny on Childrens Hospital) were given the worst possible roles in the film like this, because they have to try to make us care about the state of their relationship as the world ends around them, but it's basically impossible to give any kind of shit, though it is extremely possible to find their narcissism under the circumstances appalling.  The idea, I think, was to show how important love or some shit is, even when hope itself is gone, but compare how Berger handles that idea to the relationship between Don McKellar and Sandra Oh in Last Night (or to the entirety of F. Javier Gutierrez's quite, quite different end-of-the-world thriller Before the Fall).  But leaving them aside, there's enjoyment to be found in, for instance, David Cross's straight man antics -- Cross is, I'd say, the most talented person on screen here, and he's always been a pretty effortless comic performer -- or Ferrara's defeated, yet logical, descent into hedonism.  It's the cast, really, that saves the day here.  Berger himself flails about.  At one point he does that thing where you rapidly cut between the conversations of several paired of sets of characters, separated from each other, the hope being to build up some kind of comedic momentum, but there are no jokes and no pay off; later, Berger straight-up rips off a bit from Almost Famous, coming dangerously close to doing so verbatim.  But Cross and the increasingly dependable Stiles, as well as Ferrara, Grace, and the others are committed to getting laughs, and dare I say it, pathos, from what Berger has provided them.  Even Berger himself comes through with his ending, which is set up by a ridiculous, but thankfully not ruinous, character turn.  The ending's good, though.  It's a funny idea, well-executed.  It's possible, even likely, that I feel more positively towards It's a Disaster because of the way it ushered me out, but I'm not in the habit of trying to talk myself into liking a film less than I think I do, so I'm not gonna.
Wreck-It Ralph (d. Rich Moore) - This animated movie is perhaps the first children's film to be made specifically for 34-year-olds.  If little kids go, that's fine too, but in the same way that it's fine if women also happen to like Predator.  The story is about the title character, a vintage 1980s video game villain (voiced by John C. Reilly), realizing that he's not happy being bad, and therefore disliked, even during the off-hours of his video game world, where all the video game characters live lives of inventive verisimilitude, of the Pixar variety, away from the action of their respective arcade games, and he wants to do something about it, something heroic, or good, or noteworthy in a positive way.  So right there, Wreck-It Ralph is pandering to those people who happily wallow in the vast muck of 1980s nostalgia in which we all, especially those of us who "get to" say we grew up then, currently find ourselves up to our neck in, as others before us have found themselves up to their necks in quicksand, or shit.  The point is, that nostalgia is not being enjoyed by your eight, nine, or ten-year-old children who are the usual market, and quite understandably so, for this sort of thing.  Not that kids that age don't still play video games, but I think their appreciation for the retro and the vintage is yet to develop, as is their understanding of the kind of video game terms which actually kind of work as plot in Wreck-It Ralph.  Now, one might ask, if the pandering is being laid on so thick here, why not make a film that skews more adult?  Why make Wreck-It Ralph a kids' movie in the first place?  Because, as it happens, those in my age group who have an emotional investment in old video games also happen to like animation, including animated kids' movie, so that in terms of the potential audience for Wreck-It Ralph goes, the more the merrier.  Which is fine, I like kids' movies, too.  But if those same adults who liked Wreck-It Ralph a great deal believe that they have not been pandered to with this film, let me make it clear to them:  You Have Been Pandered To.

And pretty badly, too.  For some reason, the non-Pixar branch of Disney that made Wreck-It Ralph set up the film to be Pixar-esque with the potential for imaginative -- and here I'm going to use a phrase that the pandered-to will know well -- world-buidling, relating to the off-hours video game world that the characters pass through and talk about and live in during the film's early going.  But then, when Ralph hatches his plan, all that crap goes straight up the chimney as the remaining, I'd say, 90% of Wreck-It Ralph takes place in the world of a single game, a candy-based game, for some inexplicable reason, so that the whole premise of video game villains being forced into their bad guy roles and wishing for something more, exists, to the extent that it even does here, just barely within the confines of a completely different fantasy film about a world of candy.  The whole thing is just absolute goddamn nonsense, without ever being especially funny, and certainly not ever being especially inventive, because the filmmakers have narrowed the imaginative options down to about as narrow a space as anybody could not under any circumstances want to work within.  Also featuring the vocal talents of Sarah Silverman and Alan Tudyk.