Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Land Underground

It's been a while since I last wrote anything about Jean Rollin, one of my favorite horror-or-otherwise directors. This is something I used to make a habit of, in large part because Kino Lorber used to make a habit of releasing his films on Blu-ray. That dried up after while but today Kino, as always via their Redemption line, is back on it with their release of The Escapees, Rollin's 1981 feminist, er, crime film? Anyway that, paired with my recent viewing of his earlier horror film The Iron Rose, also available on Kino Blu-ray, has led me here today to offer a few brief words on each.

The Escapees (1981) - This film came out the same year as another Rollin film, Zombie Lake, which I wrote about here, and which may be the worst film Rollin ever made. I'd be inclined to give Schoolgirl Hitchhikers a pass over that one, because at least Schoolgirl Hitchhikers feels honest. In any event, the time had come for Rollin to re-energize himself and to do so he would return to a favorite theme, that of two women on the run -- sometimes they're just together, not so much on the run, but here they're on the run. He'd already done this in, for example, Fascination and Requiem for a Vampire, and would perhaps perfect it in one of his last films, Two Orphan Vampires, which The Escapees resembles more than any other Rollin film I've seen.

Unfortunately, The Escapees is no Two Orphan Vampires. It's about two women, Michelle (Laurence Dubas) and Marie (Christiane Coppe) who are inmates in an insane asylum. Marie won't speak and Michelle is full of anger -- we don't know much more about them than that. But Michelle wants to escape and she enlists Marie's help. Insisting that she'll leave Marie behind once they're in the clear, the two women nevertheless stay together, with Michelle's hard edge crumbling to softness any time she sees evidence of Marie's lonely despair. So the two of them go it alone, meeting lots of curious folks at, for example, what appears to be a traveling outdoor carny strip club, as well as various bars, which is a less colorful example. Along the way they fend off unwanted advances, possibly even rape, and come to see possible freedom from the restrictive, abusive "regular" world on a ship sailing to Brazil.

As already noted, The Escapees isn't a horror film and though I don't want to pigeonhole Rollin my reaction is to think "More's the pity." Since it's impossible for me to not compare this film with Two Orphan Vampires, it's also impossible for me to not see The Escapees as a dry run for that later surrealistic masterpiece. Leaving behind the Baroque possibilities of horror seems to have kept Rollin from indulging his genius for bizarre and eerie imagery, though at every turn the film is practically begging to be pushed over the stylistic brink. Rollin never does that, and the film, though not bad, ends up feeling like a curiosity exactly because it's not especially curious. God knows it's an improvement over Zombie Lake, though, and if The Escapees is what Rollin needed to push on to his next film, 1982's brilliant The Living Dead Girl, well then that's just fine by me.

The Iron Rose (1973) - Ah. This, however, this is something else again. With his fifth feature film, Rollin proved with The Iron Rose that he was a horror filmmaker unlike any other. At just 80 minutes and featuring, for all intents and purposes, only two characters, a young woman (Francoise Pascal) and a young man (Hugues Quester), this film is nothing less than a masterpiece, of tone, and chilling insinuation, and terrible mystery.

Being the kind of film it is, the plot is simplicity itself: this young couple decides one day to wander around in a cemetery, maybe have a picnic, maybe even make love in some secluded crypt. Eventually day turns to night and they realize that the cemetery's gates have been closed and locked. What's more, it's a big place, not very well kept up and overrun by old weeds and bushes, and they're kind of lost. Their nerves fray, they lash out at each other, the man's behavior becomes nearly abusive, while the young woman begins acting very strangely. She becomes very interested in the dead around them, and begins talk about them, and death itself, as a kind of real life. But not in religious, heavenly terms; rather, life that is lived in death, in the dirt, underground.

Where this is all going managed to both surprise me and to feel inevitable after the fact. And while The Iron Rose isn't short of strong images, for once it may be Rollin's writing, his prose, that lifts the film above most films in the genre (an absolutely terrific performance by Pascal doesn't hurt anything either). There's a speech late in the film that lays the whole terrible idea of it, the awful poetry of the young woman's strange new desire, which she finds beautiful, wonderful, something she takes delight in. She talks about "the land underneath" and exhorts her listener to "carry your birds of gold"; the language is obscure but the meaning is clear. There's a menace to The Iron Rose that isn't aggressive or even violent. It's not pursuing you. It's not waiting for you. It's not even menacing. It's natural. It just is.

Monday, May 25, 2015

We May Not Die Hideous Deaths

When a group of artists breaks up, be they musicians or, I don't know, let's say comedians, what the individual members of that group go on to do or not do in their creative lives is often the subject of much fascination and debate. Sometimes even mockery, if you can imagine that for one second, and eventually, usually, down the road, a reassessment of some kind. I get the feeling, for example, that currently the solo albums of Paul McCartney are broadly regarded with more warmth than the solo albums of John Lennon. It wasn't always thus, by any stretch, and this could just be a byproduct of McCartney having so much more post-Beatles work than Lennon (obviously), but anyway, there it is. What's interesting about that example, though, is that the way people talk about solo Lennon and McCartney indicates that both men are or were still in The Beatles and they never were not in The Beatles. The albums they recorded outside of their work with The Beatles was just another way they went about being in The Beatles.

Much the same thing could be said about the various members of Monty Python after that groundbreaking British comedy team broke up, as they've done more than once over the years. Their TV sketch show Monty Python's Flying Circus ran from 1969 to 1974, and from 1971 to 1983 they wrote, directed, produced, and starred in several films, at least two of which, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Life of Brian, have survived and will continue to survive as classics (The Meaning of Life is pretty underrated, incidentally). But Monty Python as we know it pretty much ceased to exist in 1983, yet of this most influential of all sketch comedy groups' six members -- John Cleese, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, and Graham Chapman -- only two of them, Cleese and Gilliam, could be said to have enjoyed a level of fame and artistic success that would seem appropriate, given their previous cultural impact (for those thinking "But Eric Idle has done very well for himself," yes indeed he has, but that success could hardly be said to have been independent of Monty Python). It would not be difficult to argue that comedically speaking, the true masterpiece to come from the group is Fawlty Towers, the sitcom Cleese co-created, wrote, and starred in with Connie Booth in the mid-to-late '70s, while the film department of Python was really chugging along. Beyond that, Cleese also has the hugely successful film A Fish Called Wanda that he wrote and starred in, and he's appeared in dozens and dozens of films, including parts of the James Bond and Harry Potter franchises. For his part, Terry Gilliam has had one of the more unusual careers as a film director I can think of. It's been a struggle, famously so, but when at the very least you get Brazil and Time Bandits out of the struggle you can rest assured that you've left your mark.

That the other four haven't left the same kind of mark post-Python is not a criticism. Leaving aside Idle (please), Michael Palin's many series of travel documentaries is hardly negligible, for one thing, plus he's a published novelist and so forth. Palin, and Idle too come to think of it, has shown scant interest in making films, other than as an actor, and even then with a steadily decreasing frequency. All of this despite the fact that film seemed to be the future of Python, or the Pythons -- as a group or individually. I'd bet good money that more people have seen Monty Python and The Holy Grail than have seen more that a handful of their television sketches. But really only Gilliam has shown any passion in that arena, his stylistic idiosyncrasies showing through even in The Holy Grail, which he co-directed with Terry Jones, his devotion to depicting the Dark Ages as filthily as possible seeming on paper to be at odds with the comedy, but instead helped to create something truly unique. When he had full rein to indulge in this way, he produced Jabberwocky, his first non-Python film as a writer and director; the results are a bit iffy, so it was perhaps Jones (and to some degree Cleese, who during the making of Holy Grail butted heads with both directors because he believed their artistic fiddling about had nothing to do with comedy) keeping his head screwed on straight, and having maybe a more classical/traditionalist approach to filmmaking, who kept the tone of that film right where it needed to be.

Terry Jones would go on to direct Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life without Gilliam. They don't feel like the work of the same director, though this could be a result of settings and the stories being told -- Life of Brian is naturally sunny and dusty, The Meaning of Life is largely indoors or set in the English countryside, etc., but one might sense that Jones is trying to find his way to a degree that Gilliam, as much of a mess as Jabberwocky is, never had to worry about. He imbued The Holy Grail with his style, it became a part of the Python style, and he carried it back out again into his own films. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas may have nothing to do with Monty Python, but it still feels like there's a connection that is more than just superficial. As a filmmaker, Jones never established that same strong personality (I might argue that as a performer he certainly did, however, and while Cleese is my own personal favorite of the Python group -- really going out on a limb on that one, I know -- Jones may have been the most idiosyncratic). His biggest shot at doing so came in 1989 with Erik the Viking, a comedy-fantasy that he wrote, directed, and has a small (fittingly ridiculous) part in, and which will be released tomorrow on DVD and Blu-ray by Olive Films.

You should know, if you don't already, that this will not be the first home video release of Erik the Viking. Perhaps I'm jumping the gun here, I can't tell anymore, but for a DVD release in 2006, Jones delegated to his son the opportunity that had been provided to him by the studio to re-edit the film. Bill Jones, the son, ended up delivering a cut of the film that was 75 minutes long. That's down about half an hour from what made it to theaters in 1989. I don't think it's going too far to infer that this suggests a certain dissatisfaction with the film, on the part of both Terry and Bill (who'd been involved with the project before the re-edit), but I've never seen that cut, or heard the Terry Jones commentary track that accompanies that disc, so what do I know? I do know the theatrical cut, I saw this film in the theaters and more than once on home video during my teenage years, and now again the other day on Blu-ray. The movie was a flop, Jones's career as a director basically stalled out (he does have a new one, fairly big, coming up though), and even when I was thirteen or fourteen years old I think I knew that whether Jones was conscious of it or not, Erik the Viking played out like someone was hoping people would mistake it for a Gilliam film (whose career was more robust then than it is now) and thereby elevate it in whatever way one elevates Gilliam's films (pardon the confusion here, but like him or not -- I do both -- it's never easy to know where to place Gilliam).

Erik the Viking is a comedy about Norse mythology that stars Tim Robbins as the titular character, a man who, though a Viking, finds less satisfaction in raping and plundering than many of his friends and fellow villagers do, including his father played with no small amount of commitment by Mickey Rooney (because might as well cast Mickey Rooney as an elderly Viking). That basic premise, which is just a starting point, is a classic Python reversal; it's really a classic reversal as a premise for sketch comedy, period (it also would have felt right at home in a novel by Terry Pratchett). What's less usual is what it's used to set up. As the film opens, Erik and his fellow Vikings are raiding a village. Erik hacks into a tent occupied by a woman named Helga (Samantha Bond). Erik is planning to rape her, not because he wants to but because he's a Viking; however due to this reticence Helga is able to talk to him, with some anger, about the evil he and his people are doing. So Erik backs off, but as he does so two of his comrades burst in. They're about to rape Helga and Erik fights them. He kills one, and then runs the other through with his sword, yet in doing so the sword also pierces Helga, and she dies. Now what?

He visits the local witch named Freya (Eartha Kitt) because the war-like nature of the Vikings doesn't feel natural to him. Over the course of the subsequent conversation, Erik learns that Ragnarok, the Norse word for the end of the world (essentially) is upon them. There's one way to stop Ragnarok, involving the blowing of the Horn Resounding, so Erik goes back to his village and recruits a team of Vikings to go on a quest to find the Horn Resounding and stop Ragnarok.

Sounds pretty funny, right? Well it kind of is. Erik the Viking isn't a deathless comedy classic, but there's a lot of fun to be had watching a film that draws as reference and inspiration for its jokes not something contemporary, but actual ancient ideas and ways of thinking. Of course the contemporary enters into things, unavoidably so, because why else are we laughing at the casual reactions to death and violence and things like that if not because we're so very much not Vikings ourselves? Going on the quest with Erik are a father (regular Gilliam actor and co-writer Charles McKeown) and his son Sven (Tim McInnerny, from Black Adder). The son has never been able to successfully enter the "berserk" state during battle, a state for which Vikings are known and feared. And so comedy (and an emotional payoff) is mined from an ancient Norse conception of the concept of bloodlust. This isn't to say that Erik the Viking is tiresomely high minded or proud of itself, but I don't think a film comedy with a frame of reference broader than Judd Apatow could ever imagine should be dismissed. I also think it's worth mentioning that with a film like this, you can compare its approach to comedy with that of Apatow, and think that in its approach to Vikings the film, whatever its faults, which are numerous and real, feels somehow more honest than Nicolas Winding Refn's ostensibly more "authentic" Valhalla Rising. This is the sort of thing that can come out of the world of Monty Python, and pretty much nowhere else.

I mean, here's a comedy that also deals with rape and makes jokes about murder but uses both as a catalyst for various characters to become better people within the framework of the world they actually live in, not the one the viewers live in. It has elements of Mel Brooksian parody without ever actually being that. It has monsters and other practical effects, which set a very appealing mood like in early Gilliam films; it uses John Cleese as the villainous flip on his Robin Hood in Gilliam's Time Bandits (in which Cleese wasn't villainous, just deeply, hilariously cynical; otherwise, look at Robin Hood's scene and Cleese's main Halfdan the Black scene in Erik the Viking side-by-side -- they're pretty much the same); it even eventually becomes ethereally serious, in a way that both evokes the last third of Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and sort of refutes it, being somewhat more sunny in its philosophy than Gilliam's bit. But while watching Erik the Viking you can't avoid Gilliam, and in this way you can't avoid Python. Not that you should have to, or even want to -- I originally wanted to see Erik the Viking in 1989 because of the strong Python connection. And if that long serious bit late in Erik the Viking doesn't work, and is in fact pretty tedious, and in fact ultimately rolls back certain things in the story that I really wish it hadn't, well, that similar bit in Baron Munchausen can be faulted for all the same things.

I realize that it seems as though my point is that Terry Jones is merely ripping off Terry Gilliam. I don't think that. I do think that Gilliam's success had to be on his mind when making Erik the Viking, but as Paul McCartney's Ram and John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band are in cultural/historical terms thought of as merely extensions of The Beatles, Gilliam's early films and certainly Erik the Viking are both steps away from and to Python. An obvious point, maybe, but everything goes out of fashion eventually, and Python was going out of fashion by the time Erik the Viking came along. "Had already gone out of fashion," you'd almost have to argue. Cleese's A Fish Called Wanda came out just one year before, but if you think about it, that film is not especially Pythonesque. It's a romantic comedy caper, but darker and R-rated enough to give it all an appealingly grown-up edge. Compared to Erik the Viking (and I'm not foolish enough to think that Erik the Viking is better than A Fish Called Wanda), Cleese's hit film takes place in the everyday world we all live in. But of course the tragedy of Erik the Viking isn't that it's not funny (I think it's funny) or that it has flaws (A Fish Called Wanda has flaws), it's that it's weird. Flops that are weird aren't given any credit for being weird. People simply say "What were they thinking!?" They don't then go on and try to understand what they were thinking. So Erik the Viking was a flop because it was strange in a way that had just recently gone out of style. It's as simple as that.

Contrast this, if you will, with Yellowbeard, a film from 1983 directed by Mel Damski and co-written by and starring (sort of) Graham Chapman. Chapman had such a strange place within Monty Python -- never mind that he was one of the funniest (my second favorite, for the record), but by all accounts some of the most ridiculous and surreal non sequiturs were his (the famous, defining, hilarious, and sudden ejaculation "Burma!" in one Python sketch was Chapman's, for example); yet when the films were being made it somehow fell to Chapman, and not Michael Palin, who now perhaps seems like a more obvious choice, to play the straight man/protagonist/everyman. Chapman wasn't necessarily playing all of these at once (in Life of Brian he was, though), but he was chosen to be the center of these absurdist films. This despite the fact that on a personal level his life was the most chaotic. Chapman was an open homosexual, which caused a fair amount of controversy but against which the other Pythons were ready, willing, and able to stand with Chapman; he was also an alcoholic, and this caused a great deal more upheaval in the group. It was dealt with, one way or the other, and I for one have never seen the effects of his addiction on screen (he really was a natural comic genius, whose frequent pairings with Cleese -- they were also writing partners -- stand in my mind as one of the great comic pairings in history); the point of course is that Chapman could do all of that, and he could also be ridiculous and silly at the drop of a hat. He was, perhaps, the quintessential Python.

It's not impossible that the reverence in which I and many others hold Graham Chapman is goosed by the fact that he died (he's the "dead one" of the group; most groups of a certain vintage have at least one) in 1989 (to give you some idea of myself, I still remember the day) at the infuriating age of 48. So yes, perhaps that's it, but I'm not dissuaded from that reverence by watching Chapman's work. I'm not even dissuaded from that reverence by watching Yellowbeard, another flop, a not beloved film, a film best known at this stage probably because co-star Marty Feldman died suddenly of a heart attack while making it (because his diet was rich in dairy and eggs, Mel Brooks has postulated). Also in the cast are Peter Cook, Madeline Kahn, James Mason, John Cleese, Tommy Chong, Cheech Marin, Peter Boyle, Eric Idle, Kenneth Mars, David Bowie (in one of the more pointless cameos I've ever seen), and Spike Milligan. Plus others. Yellowbeard tells the story, and I might as well get this out of the way quickly, of a viciously ridiculous or ridiculously vicious pirate named Yellowbeard (Chapman) who escapes from prison and goes in search of the treasure he hid, while the English government, represented mainly by Idle, follow in hopes to be led to that treasure, and also while an old enemy (Boyle) pursues him for not just wealth but also revenge, plus there's stuff about a map and Yellowbeard's son, and so on and so on. The plot doesn't matter, of course. The jokes do, and though there's no particular style brought to the material by director Mel Damski, in terms of comedy it's more aggressively Pythonesque than Erik the Viking. It's quite offensive, in fact. I don't remember any rape jokes in Erik the Viking even though that crime comes up a lot in the film, but Yellowbeard has a ton of rape jokes. At one point, Yellowbeard denies that he has a son with Betty (Kahn) because, he says, the last woman he raped he also killed. Hoo boy. But listen, I wouldn't hesitate to argue that that's actually funny, because the period being depicted in this film, and the kind of person Yellowbeard is meant to be, would have regarded rape as nothing to get worked up about. So that's the joke. That's what we're mocking by laughing at it. I know, that's not the thing to do now, but maybe...well, whatever. Yellowbeard would never be made today. "It wouldn't be the first head I ever ate!" Yellowbeard says at one point, and you can take that quote literally. It's funny.

Yellowbeard was also a flop. That doesn't bother me. What does bother me is that the film finally kind of backs away from the heedlessly offensive material referenced above. How could someone like Yellowbeard who thinks nothing of rape and murder go out of his way to save a bum from being caught in an explosion he, Yellowbeard, had orchestrated? There's a fair chunk of that in the last half hour of the film, and it strikes me as wildly disingenuous, or would do if I didn't strongly suspect those bits were forced upon the film by the studio. A commentary track on this disc would have been very welcome, but apparently nobody much cares about it now. It's considered bad and unfunny, but I don't think it's either one of those. It's a product of an era that's gone, of a sensibility that's gone, of a type of humor that we still claim to worship but which is also gone. Flying in the face of what I said earlier, it's less Pythonesque than Erik the Viking because Mel Damski could not have been more of an outsider, but there's still John Cleese in there, and Chapman. More than anything, there's Chapman, who didn't do much outside of Python that we can easily see now. Yellowbeard is one of the few films he made, and damn it, it's not a great film, but it's funny.

Monday, May 18, 2015

I Hate the Sight of Blood but It's in My Veins

I have a couple of short reviews of films soon to be released on DVD and Blu-ray. Read on, you son of a bitches!

The Girl Who Knew Too Much/Evil Eye (d. Mario Bava) - In his commentary track for Mario Bava's 1963 thriller The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Tim Lucas notes an early difference between the original European cut of the film, which bears the aforementioned title, and the Samuel Z. Arkoff-shepherded American cut, which, in a reversal of the expected, is slightly longer and goes by the title Evil Eye. The star, Leticia Roman, is on a plane. In Bava's original cut, after some establishing stuff and credits, there's a hard cut to Roman and we get some narration about who she is and why she's flying to Italy. In the American cut, before the camera lands on Roman it drifts along the plane's aisle and we hear the thoughts of various other passengers. They're all mundane, everyday thoughts until we reach Roman, who is thinking about murder. It turns out her character, an American named Nora Davis, is obsessed by mystery novels, and she's simply thinking deeply about the one she's currently engrossed by. This opening, Lucas informs us on the commentary, is considered by Quentin Tarantino to be one of the greatest openings of all time, and it, Lucas goes on to say, along with other tone-lightening elements to be found in the Evil Eye cut, are missed when one watches The Girl Who Knew Too Much.

Maybe, maybe not. I have Evil Eye playing now as I write this, which I offer in the spirit of full disclosure, and because having seen neither, when I received the new Kino Lorber Blu-ray that contains both versions, I opted for The Girl Who Knew Too Much, it being a Bava film I'd never seen, and it being Bava's preferred cut, or so I've inferred, although since Bava went on to more or less dismiss the whole enterprise who can say, and, even if one could, would it matter? On top of this is the fact that, for what I presume are rescued-from-obscurity reasons, Kino gives Evil Eye preferential treatment on the cover, The Girl Who Knew Too Much snagging only a "Plus The Girl Who Knew Too Much" credit.

In any event, The Girl Who Knew Too Much is somewhat less spirited than Evil Eye (which in fairness to myself is nearly over) and a big reason for that is that Bava's cut makes Nora's obsession with mystery novels less of of a fun tone-setting idea than a plot contrivance, and, in fact, it's the film(s)'s plot that came to bug him later in life. He called the plot, which has to do with a series of murders in Rome the victims of which, all women, have last names that progress through the alphabet, hence the designation "The A-B-C Murders," the most recent of these Nora witnesses, anyway, Bava called the plot "preposterous." I guess it is, but if preposterous plots were a barrier to be avoided in making these kinds of films, I'm not sure we'd even have these kinds of films. In the end, none of that matters. What matters is what Bava does with it. That beginning to Evil Eye is pretty good and a very Hitchcockian idea, Hitchcock being the artist Bava is clearly pursuing here. There's lots of nice touches, such as Nora walking through a deserted series of hallways and rooms while the voice of, one assumes, the killer plays over a tape recorder. That bit is very stark and creepy, and not particularly light-hearted -- when Hitchcock wanted to make a light movie he tended to do so top to bottom, but Bava doesn't, or couldn't, which might explain why he removed those elements for the final version of The Girl Who Knew Too Much. Maybe he thought it was an uneasy marriage; if so, I'm not sure I agree. When Nora witnesses the murder, she sees the killer (face obscured) pull the knife from the dead woman's body, and Bava shoots this so we get the killer, the body, the street, the low brick wall, trees, the night, and we see the body move with the killer's effort to retrieve the knife. It's a terrific bit of restrained gruesomeness that adds weight to the proceedings without getting in the way of the fun. As I watch Evil Eye now I think that, surprisingly, Samuel Arkoff had the right idea. It's a better time at the pictures. Either way, John Saxon is in both versions and he's pretty young, and young John Saxon looks like Walter Koenig. So there's that too.

Limelight (d. Charlie Chaplin) - Charlie Chaplin turned 63 in 1952, the same year he released this film about an aging, alcoholic vaudeville comedian who noticed some time ago that the world no longer has much interest in him. At the beginning of the film, Chaplin's character, Calvero, is stumbling drunk into the boarding house where he lives when he discovers that another tenant, a young woman named Terry (Claire Bloom) has attempted suicide. Calvero saves her and the two become friends. Terry is a ballerina whose depression and crippling lack of confidence keep her from performing, while Calvero, even with all he knows about show business, maintains a perhaps unreasonable optimism. The two encourage each other to keep trying, to find work performing. Calvero stops drinking. He and Terry fall in love but don't do anything about it.

Such is the basic plot of Limelight, the one Chaplin masterpiece that has really struggled to be recognized as such. When it was released, Chaplin's life was in upheaval due to accusations that he was a Communist; this essentially scuttled the US release, which can only be regarded as ironic since Limelight is perhaps his least political film. It's about art, creativity, performance, the past, love, and death. It really is an immense piece of work. Watching it again today after many years, on the new Criterion Blu-ray that comes out Tuesday, I was struck most by what a confident, natural all-around actor Chaplin was, as at home in the sound era that he resisted as he was in the silent films that made him famous. His Calvero is a man battling despair and finding it both tempting to surrender as the time left to him to begin a new life on stage quickly runs out, and easy to keep going, to let his natural optimism and frothiness win out in the face of a young, beautiful, talented woman who has unaccountably given up. Chaplin is able to play all of this, from one scene to the next, within the same scene, from the beginning of the film until it ends over two hours later, without ever letting his performance seem messy or overstuffed. Simple things like Chaplin's ability to make his voice break as emotion threatens to overwhelm Calvero feel not just like good acting, but like brilliance.

The biggest criticism Limelight has had to fight against over the years is the charge that it is sentimental. Oh, it's sentimental, all right. Lots of Chaplin's films are sentimental. The problem with this accusation is that it accepts the corrupted definition of "sentimental," which sees the word only as a pejorative, and leaves behind its original, more Victorian (and Limelight is a very Victorian film in a lot of ways) meaning, which merely describes a thing or person that is nostalgic or tender or sad to large, perhaps exaggerated degree. Excessively so, one might even argue, and of course this is where the anti-sentimentality crowd gathers their ammunition. It's funny, though, how an excess of just about any other emotion is considered acceptable. No one would complain that a horror film had too much fear in it. Melodrama (which Limelight might have been had Chaplin's visual style matched his emotional pitch) has fought this same battle, but in critical circles, at least, the understanding of melodrama as a genre, or a form, won out long ago. With sentimentality, it's still not appreciated that like anything else it can be used well or badly, it can be executed well or badly. And if you think that Calvero marveling at the grace of Terry's dancing, or Chaplin and Buster Keaton, as Calvero's partner for one show, appearing together on screen for the first and only time, or Nigel Bruce, in a wonderful performance as a theater producer, simply and devastatingly delivering the line "Carry the sofa out to the wings," counts as bad sentimentality, or is bad because it is sentimental, then I guess we'll have to leave it at that. There's no talking to you.

Monday, May 11, 2015

A Monster of Death

The 70s and 80s sure were a strange time for the horror genre, both in print and on film. Various novels and films, like The Exorcist and Carrie and The Other and so on, were such huge successes, probably because we as a society were still reeling from Watergate or whatever, that they kicked open the barn doors and allowed the genre to come stampeding out and multiply, much like cattle do, you see. The point is, those who could publish your book or (more to the point, as we'll now leave books behind, though what happened there is by no means irrelevant) greenlight your movie discovered that horror was not just some disreputable niche, or rather, if it was the niche was enormous and the disrepute was something that almost everyone in the world had long ago accepted about themselves. In short, horror films were cheap to make and would always, pretty much, make a profit. The upside of this was that a lot of good films got made that otherwise would have never made it past the screenplay stage (it also meant that some talented filmmakers who were not otherwise interested in horror were able to use its commercial viability to at least get a film made, and that distance from the genre could pay off beautifully -- see William Huyck and Gloria Katz's Messiah of Evil, for instance). The downside, of course, was (well, is) that in some cases, possibly a lot of cases, quality control could become a secondary concern, so the cheapness of the genre became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.  All of this led to some very bad movies, and some very strange movies, and often movies that were both.

See for example Satan's Blade, which Olive Films will be releasing on DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow. So far the only film made by director L. Scott Castillo, Jr. (who also produced and developed the story, which was then banged into a script by Thomas Cue, who also co-stars), filmed in 1980 but not released until 1984, Satan's Blade is a slasher film, as so many horror films were at the time.  It is, however, one of the oddest slasher films I've seen, given that for great big chunks it doesn't seem to want to be, or has forgotten that it's supposed to be, a slasher film, or even a horror film. At first, actually, it's a crime film. A bank is closing, at what looks to be about noon, and two masked armed robbers bust in on the two women who were left to close up the whole bank. The robbers empty the tills, don't seem terribly concerned about things such as vaults, and one of them uses a knife to pop off the buttons on the blouse worn by one of the terrified women. Anyhow, they get their money and shoot both women to death. Cut to the robbers making it back to their hideout cabin where it's revealed that they're both women themselves, if you can even believe it, and much exposition is enjoyed concerning George, an unseen third member of their crew, and how the more hardboiled of the two women wants to double-cross him. "Doesn't $50,000 sound much better divided by two?" And immediately I thought, "You did all this for, basically, less than $17,000 each?" Even if one of them double-crosses the other two (which is going to happen) that person will have committed three murders for $50,000. Which some people will do, but don't then strut around like you're some mastermind. Enjoy your one year off before you have to start delivering pizzas in Belize.

But it doesn't get that far because they're both killed, including the hardboiled one, who is stabbed by someone mysterious. The cabin where all this murder happened turns out to be a rental, one of many at what I guess is a ski resort, though I, admittedly no skier, would have to regard it as fairly shitty as ski resorts go. Shitty or not, the next day it enjoys an influx of customers, including two married couples who are friends and want to rent a cabin together, and a Bevy Of Sexy Girls, who want to ski in their nighties probably. Now, try to remember, the night before in one of these cabins a double murder has taken place. Two policemen, played by Fred Armond and someone with the name Ski Mark Ford, were shown in the murder cabin, looking at creepy symbols drawn in blood on the wall, but when asked by the managers of the ski resort if, now, the day after the murders, it's okay to rent out that same cabin to perhaps the pair of married couples, the cops say "Yeah, that should be okay, we'll keep an eye on it." While not as devoted to the art of homicide investigation as we in the civilian population might wish them to be, that their continued presence is assured has to offer some comfort. In the end, the murder cabin is rented to the Bevy Of Sexy Girls, which in some ways makes the whole thing beside the point because the story focuses on the clump of married people. These include Al (Cue) and his wife Lil (Janeen Lowe), and Lisa (Elisa R. Malinovitz), who is married to Tony (Tom Bongiorno). Tony has just passed the bar exam, and now it's time to reconnect with his wife. The problem is he's irresistible to women, and one of the Sexy Girls, named Stephanie (Stephanie Leigh Steel), has her eye on him. You can see Tony and Stephanie below:

I mean, check out Tony. I wouldn't mind knocking off a piece of that shit myself. No wonder his struggle to resist temptation and devote himself to the woman he married ends up taking up so much of Satan's Blade. Because that's what happens. We're given all the set-up of a slasher film, including the local legend about a crazy mountain man/killer, as well as a sampling of blood early on, but little effort is put into creating any kind of atmosphere of dread or suspense. Instead the question becomes, will Tony fuck Stephanie, or is he, in fact, the perfect man?

For his part, director Castillo may have wanted to inject a little more humanity into the then-burgeoning slasher subgenre than we were/are used to seeing, and good on him for having that impulse, I guess, but he spends a lot of time showing people do things like carry bags upstairs, or talk about going to bed. A scene between Al and Tony, where they stay up late getting drunk, is pitched by both actors at a level that indicates to me that neither man has ever had so much as a sip of champagne in their entire lives (although in fairness, you could say the same thing about just about every film that has ever featured someone who is supposed to be roaring drunk, including Network, and I'm pretty sure William Holden had a nip or two in his day; one film where you'll find a really aces drunk performance is Waiting for Guffman, where being badly drunk is played for both laughs and verisimilitudinous discomfort by Catherine O'Hara. Just FYI). And so on. The film is built on this sort of nonsense that is meant to be drama but is so thoughtless and absurd that you just kind of tilt your head at it. After the meeting between Stephanie and Tony pictured above, the way the film subsequently plays out means the audience is evidently meant to accept that Stephanie goes walking through the woods for literally hours. And not so she can be murdered in the woods, but just so she can not be around. Why? I'll be straight with you, I'm not sure I have an answer to that.

Eventually, murders happen, and here I'll give Satan's Blade some credit. For one thing, holding the majority of your violence until the last twenty minutes is something that even the most famous slasher films actually used to do -- see Halloween and Friday the 13th, for cryin' out loud. It's only later that the murders in such films started to be parceled out for most of the film's length. So anyway, that's not really a problem, nor is it really a problem that the gore effects are pretty weak, because you work with what you got, and not every low-budget horror film had a Tom Savini to turn to. So with my forgiving heart open to Satan's Blade, I will say that once it becomes a horror film it's, you know, it's okay. Much of it is bad, certainly, but there is one bit involving one character hiding under a bed that, considering that this was filmed in 1980, is both rather good and may have been ripped off by lots and lots of people. I don't know. I wish I could track down definitively the first time this idea was used, but my memory is for shit. If it was first used by L. Scott Castillo, Jr. in Satan's Blade, then I tip my hat to him. On top of that, the violence is surprisingly pitiless, if that turns your crank at all, and I didn't see the final twist coming. And, as twists go, this one works. In the end, none of this adds up to very much, but you take what you can get.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

An Unbearable Man

In 2011, three films were released that made a strong argument, for those who needed to be persuaded, and they are legion, in favor of what someone finally decided needed to be called "slow cinema." They were Julia Loktev's The Loneliest Planet, Bela Tarr's The Turin Horse, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. The Loktev film is a hypnotic parade of nothingness (not an insult) that ingeniously hinges on one rather startling incident, and Tarr's film, supposedly his last, portrays poverty, tedium, and cruelty as a combination that adds up to the Apocalypse; but it was Ceylan's 157-minute breakout almost genre/nearly crime procedural about homicide detectives searching for a dead body in the titular region of Turkey that really announced itself. This is in part because Loktev is still establishing herself, The Loneliest Planet being only her third film, and Tarr could give a fuck. Ceylan, meanwhile, had made five films prior to Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, he was known, admired, and had plenty left to give. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which includes a very long shot of an apple rolling down a hill and ends with an extensive (which doesn't meant especially graphic) autopsy entirely lacking in catharsis (not an insult), seemed to be Ceylan's way of announcing that this was the kind of filmmaker he was going to be, now that he was able.

Ceylan built upon this triumph (while also saying "no seriously I mean it") with 2014's Winter Sleep. This film became instantly notorious, or anyway a source of wariness among beleaguered film festival-goers, because of its 196-minute run time, but then people saw it at Cannes, where it went on to win the Palme d'Or, and everything was fine. Because the film, which Kino Lorber has just released on DVD and Blu-ray, is indeed quite long, this is impossible to refute, but for a film constructed mainly of a series of very long conversations and arguments, really moves. I was told it did, and I wasn't lied to. I realize my description probably makes the whole thing sound like some sort of an experiment, which it isn't -- as a drama, in a lot of ways it's pretty classical. So classical that if Ceylan had chosen to pitch his emotions a couple degrees higher (and cut out about an hour) he might have end up with a melodrama. One that is rather more overtly philosophical than perhaps we've come to expect from that form, but still: horrible strife between siblings, a marriage falling apart before our eyes, and class tensions with a potentially criminal element looming in the wings. Everything's there.

But Winter Sleep is pretty damn far from a melodrama. It's about Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), a wealthy landowner of about 60 years of age who rents property (so much that at one point he says he didn't realize another character is one of his tenants, though I'd say this claim is a dubious one) in a
mountainous region of Turkey. Smack in the middle of Aydin's land is the hotel he owns and manages with his much younger wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen). Near the beginning of the film, Aydin and his assistant Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan) are out shopping for wild horses, in a manner of speaking, because one of Aydin's hotel tenants was recently disappointed to learn that the hotel does not make horses available for riding, despite including a picture of them on the website. The picture is there for local color, wild horses being common in the area, but he comes to believe this was a business miscalculation on his part. Anyway, that's what they're doing when a rock smashes the passenger window of their truck. It was thrown by a young boy, the son of Hamdi (Serhat Kilic), a local clergyman who rents his home from Aydin (and rented it previously from Aydin's father, who we gather has passed away). A subsequent encounter with first Hamdi's brother, an ex-con named Ismail (Nejat Isler) and then Hamdi himself reveals that Hamdi's meager salary has to support Ismail, Hamdi's wife and son, as well as Hamdi himself, Ismail's criminal past and hot temper leaving him unable to secure a job. On top of this, Hamdi -- who, when he finds Aydin and Hidayet outside his home confronting his brother with the broken window and the fact that the young boy's recklessness could have killed them, immediately becomes ingratiating and tries to smooth things over -- has fallen behind on the rent for various understandable reasons. Now you add the window to what he owes, even though Aydin tries to (pretends to?) brush it aside. He actually lets Hidayet be the bad guy, though Hidayet doesn't come off as muscle. He comes off as reasonable. But previously, Hamdi points out, a debt collector was sent, and his family's refrigerator and TV were taken. That's why the boy was so mad. Why was a debt collector called in? Aydin's father never went so far.

Also living with Aydin and Nihal is Aydin's sister Necla (Demet Akbag). Necla is recently divorced, and she now leads a somewhat aimless but you'd have to say comfortable existence with Aydin and Nihal. She spends her evenings on a couch behind Aydin's desk as he writes articles and essays for the local newspaper. She likes his writing, she tells him, but wonders about his ambition to publish them only in this paper she wouldn't even know existed otherwise. Aydin does have grander ambitions as a writer, however -- a former stage actor, Aydin tells the same hotel tenant who asked about horses that he plans to write a history of the Turkish theater. But he's content to publish these little essays about politics and religion and society in this small paper. His relationship with his sister is full of these genial little disagreements, one of which, involving Necla's curious theory that in order to defeat evil one must simply let it occur so that the evildoer will naturally come to feel shame and therefore change his or her behavior, is sort of the point on which all of Winter Sleep will finally turn. Sort of.

And I've barely said anything about Nihal, Aydin's wife, a character who is hardly insignificant in the film. She does charity work, raising money and donating, for local school causes. The strain between husband and wife can be noticed early when Aydin asks her for advice about a letter he received asking for money to build a school for women to indulge in their creative side. Nihal thinks other causes are more pressing, and can tell Aydin wants to grant the request because the woman's letter was so intensely (and calculatingly) flattering towards him, though Nihal bites her tongue on that note.

But as far as summary goes, I should stop there. Suffice it to say that Aydin's relationship with almost all of these people will fray and even snap over the course of Winter Sleep's three-plus hours. In addition, it should be clear that, a film built upon conversation though Winter Sleep may be, the potential for those conversations is rich. The characters talk and talk, the discussions and arguments lasting for twenty minutes at a time, and Aydin is slowly revealed, or reveals himself, to be a quietly awful person. Not an awful person who is always wrong, I would argue, because I don't believe it interests Ceylan very much to be that simplistic, and during one major blow-out between Aydin and Necla, I found my sympathies shifting every couple of minutes. Even so, Aydin is a condescending, patronizing, selfish, venal bastard. He just never gets on a chair and announces himself as such. Bilginer's performance is of a kind of impassioned naturalism that leaves you feeling no doubt that you're watching a landowner named Aydin, full stop. His co-stars match him. Kilic, as Hamdi, the tenant and imam struggling to keep his family from sinking into poverty, is a marvel as he meets and pleads with Aydin over and over again, plastering on his face a smile so desperately trying to hide its own bullshit because if Hamdi's frustrated, enraged contempt for Aydin ever showed itself, it would be all over for him, for his son, his wife, for Ismael. You can feel your fingernails digging into your palm watching Hamdi just trying to win an extra week's time.

Almost as painful (and there's a real humdinger of a scene that may make you gasp, but never mind about that one) is not exactly the big fight between Aydin and Necla, but the immediate aftermath. Ceylan seems to have a greater respect than most filmmakers, including other filmmakers who write their own scripts, as he does, for the natural emotional impact of the words his characters say. There's a minute or two of silence after Aydin and Necla have finished gutting each other, and the only time I've felt that uncomfortable after a fight is when I've had one in real life. You can feel, first, "Well, this night is fucked" and then "Well, this whole thing might be fucked." Bilginer and Akbag's stillness is the stillness of people who've been slapped, or shot. When Necla finally leaves the room, she carries the unmistakable burden of someone who has to figure out how to go to sleep now.

Winter Sleep isn't all people talking in rooms, either. It gets outside a fair bit, and the rocky, stormy landscape he favors here and in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia has a beautiful edge-of-the-world quality to it. And there's lots of room for little things -- Aydin's relationship with a young Japanese tenant at the hotel is charming and even moving -- and the scene where the wild horse that Aydin has paid to have captured and brought to him has such a violent, exhausting energy that the weight of the never-underlined metaphor, if it's even that, perhaps just the never-spoken poetry, is immense in its absence. If you get what I'm saying. But those are the touches, that's the eye, of a real filmmaker.