Wednesday, June 28, 2017

When You Come to a Strange Land

Historically, when the American Movie Business gets it into its head to explore or at least depict a culture far removed from any found within the fifty states, or even some of the ones that do exist within them, at any rate, a culture that is not Los Angeles and is not New York, the results tend to be a film that stands, as if itself a person, benevolently above the actual people it's depicting, lowering itself down to them (perhaps in a bucket) as a gift; or warmly crouches down, to their level, handing itself to them like a father handing his son, or maybe the neighbor’s son, a football. Hence things like “white savior” films, wherein, in essence, a white person tells the story of a non-white person because somebody has to, goddamnit. Which, if you want me to lay all my cards on the table, would bother me somewhat less than it does if more of these films could justify themselves by being any good. Most of them can’t, so the defense is unable to mount a case. And so you have to wonder about the makers of these films, and of the wider world of the American Movie Business, when it comes to these sorts of films, what stories do they actually think they’re telling? Because it looks like it’s the story about how nice it is that they even thought to do this in the first place.
That specific problem, the “white savior” one, is not what plagues Nicholas Ray’s 1960 film The Savage Innocents, which has just been released on DVD and Blu-ray by Olive Films. Based on a novel by Swiss novelist Hans Ruesch, co-written with Ray by the Italian writer Franco Solinas, and financed with Italian, French, and British money, the only American help Ray got on this film was the distribution it received from Paramount. This may explain why its problems are somewhat different than those that you could have expected from a similar Hollywood production, but when all is said and done, you still have a bunch of Americans, French, British, and Italian folks making a movie about Eskimos. Eskimos played by Japanese, Chinese, and Mexican-Irish actors, at that.
None of which, again, especially bothers me in theory. Had I been fortunate enough to like The Savage Innocents, I wouldn’t be here now sputtering things like “Well, but France.” But I did not like The Savage Innocents (in fact, it’s the first Nicholas Ray film I’ve seen that I haven’t at least enjoyed), and more than that, the flaws are inextricable from the situation I’ve just described.
The story is simple: Anthony Quinn plays Inuk, an unmarried hunter whose loneliness is exacerbated by his pride. Though it’s traditional for other men to offer their wives to friends for carnal satisfaction now and again, Inuk has begun refusing such offers, which is seen as rude. Eventually, a matchmaking scheme is set in motion by others in Inuk’s community and after a while he marries Asiak (Yoko Tani). During all this, we see various hunting expeditions, and other rituals and daily chores that might seem unusual to us, the viewers, often narrated by Nicholas Stuart. Along the way, Inuk and his wife encounter something akin to Western culture and its specific ways of life when they go to a trading post to trade furs for a gun, which Inuk has only recently learned existed. Inuk and Asiak are also involved in the accidental death of a white man, which ultimately brings all of the film’s concerns and arguments and preoccupations to a head, as Inuk encounters a Canadian police officer (a pre-Lawrence Peter O’Toole, inexplicably dubbed).
And I didn’t buy a second of it. The film looks as stupendous as you’d expect from Ray – some images, such as those showing Inuk and a friend rowing through the sea, between and alongside mountainous glaciers, are breathtaking; on a giant movie screen, those moments might literally take away one’s breath (the cinematography was a team affair involving the English DP Peter Hennessy, who worked on many documentaries, which fits as some of the film was made by having a crew shadow actual Eskimo hunting expeditions, and the great Aldo Tonti, of Nights of Cabiria and Europe ’51 fame). But the depiction of the Eskimos is frankly appalling, and hard to sit through. Quinn (whose makeup and wig make him look like a Vulcan), and everyone else cast as an Eskimo, is made to caper and constantly giggle, like little children, so innocent are these savages (though who really is the savage). The Savage Innocents may have the decency to be actually about its Eskimo characters, but it betrays no desire to imagine them as adult human beings. Inuk and the others may, in the first half of the film, have never had any contact with what we call the civilized world, but I refuse to believe that this sort of natural isolation leaves anyone so isolated in a state of perpetual childhood. Everything makes Inuk laugh: talk of sex, actual sex, the appearance of food, eating food, hunting, snow, other people. And his laugh isn’t the laugh of a grown person, but the silly, somewhat abashed titter of, not even a real kid, but a nauseatingly sweet movie kid. And this is Quinn’s performance for most of the film.
It should maybe go without saying that authentic or not when it comes to its depiction of Eskimo life and customs and attitudes, given the condescending approach, I was less than convinced that much of what I was seeing corresponded to reality. Again, this might not matter, but when you consider all this in relation to the use of Nicholas Stuart’s narration, it must be assumed that at least part of the ambition of The Savage Innocents is anthropological. Yet am I really expected to believe that when Inuk and Asiak have a baby, neither of them are aware that babies don’t have teeth (the mother and father believe that the toothlessness of their child means their family is cursed)? If they were literally Adam and Eve, okay fine, but both of them exist in a larger Eskimo community. Not a massive community, but big enough to have at various times included a baby here and there. Inuk, for all his childishness is shown as knowing exactly what one needs to do to survive in this cold wasteland (which makes that childishness even harder to swallow, but anyway), but what babies look like is beyond him. And his wife, though both manage to care for the baby, without having to ask around. It’s just that “no teeth” thing that throws them.
Where The Savage Innocents finally goes is interesting, potentially so anyway, but the situation that leads to the film’s end is such a stacked-deck affair that I can’t accept the questions as being fully asked, let alone answered. A film can’t provide insight if it doesn’t seem to possess any. This is somewhat shocking, coming from Nicholas Ray, whose career began with a masterpiece, They Live By Night, and would go on to be one of the strongest (however short it sadly was) and most unique in Hollywood history. They can’t all be knock outs, I guess.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Hopelessly Insane

One of these days, I’m going to come to some sort of conclusion about the films of Dario Argento. I tend to be either thrilled by them, or completely unmoved. I suppose this uncertainty does make each film an exciting adventure, but as adventures go, they’re often frustrating. I may have done this to myself by approaching Argento’s filmography from, if you’ll pardon the expression, the ass-end; I’ve seen Mother of Tears and Dario Argento’s Dracula and The Card Player, but I haven’t seen Deep Red or Inferno or Four Flies on Grey Velvet. We needn’t concern ourselves with the whys of any of this. If it helps my case at all, I am trying to correct this imbalance by catching up with the big titles.
Such as, just to take a random example, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, his first film as a director. Released in 1970 (and just out now on a snazzy new Blu-ray from Arrow Video), it’s a pretty classic example of a gialli, in that there’s a black-gloved killer, a hunt for same, numerous stabbing deaths, and a cloud of nonsense hanging over the whole thing. It’s a proto-slasher film, or so some would and have and continue to argue, except that, as distinct from most if not all other Argento films I’ve seen, it’s not especially bloody – it’s certainly no Tenebrae, Argento’s film from 1982, made when the slasher genre was really ramping up, and a very nasty piece of work it indeed is.
The plot is simple: a blocked American writer named Sam (Tony Musante) is staying in Rome with his English girlfriend (Suzy Kendall) when, one night, Sam is walking through downtown at night when he happens to look in the window of an art gallery that is closed for the night, and sees and man and woman struggling. The man is wearing a black coat and hat, his features difficult to make out. The woman, who we eventually learn is named Monica (Eva Renzi) and is married to the gallery owner (Umberto Raho), ends up being stabbed in the abdomen. After a very striking sequence involving Sam trying to make his way past locked glass doors (one is unlocked by a mysterious black-gloved hand) to, hopefully, get to her, or anyway have his cry for help heard by a passer-by.
Eventually the cops arrive, Monica survives, and Sam is relentlessly questioned by the police, led by Inspector Morosini (Enrico Maria Salerno). It’s not that Sam is a suspect – he very clearly didn’t do it. But this stabbing is only the latest of many that have left several women dead across the city, Sam is the only eyewitness the police have. And as the questioning continues and repeats itself and days go by, Musante does a good job of showing the weary, almost angry frustration at being asked the same questions over and over again. The trouble is, by the third scene of Morosini asking him what the man in black looked like, I myself probably could have stepped in for Musante, should he have fallen ill at any point. A simple time jump would have achieved what Argento was going for – showing it the way he does is just tedious.
In fact, while the plot of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage could not be simpler, Argento seems to be constantly searching for ways to drag things out. As you’d expect, Sam becomes obsessed with the case, and begins conducting his own investigation, with which the cops have no beef. At one point, Sam’s detective work takes him to a remote Italian village so that he can question the loony artist behind an absolutely bonkers painting the purchase of which from a store in Rome seems to have been connected to an earlier murder. Anyway, so Sam meets the guy, and this whole bit of the film ultimately has no bearing on anything. It exists only so that Sam can accidentally eat cat meat. Many of the various parts that make up The Bird with the Crystal Plumage have little to no bearing on the proceedings, including the title. Which is a great title, but the meaning is ultimately so arbitrary that I wish Argento had called this movie The Crazy Painting Murders and saved The Bird with the Crystal Plumage for a film that could have put it to better use.
Of course, that stuff is all part of the cloud of nonsense I referred to earlier, which is a kind of cloud I do not object to in principle, or as a general artistic or storytelling philosophy, and which, in any case, is par for the course not only with Argento, but with giallo as a whole. My favorite Argento film, 1985’s Phenomena, a film I love nearly beyond reason, is nothing but a cloud of nonsense. It is a nonsense cloud made flesh. But if a mystery film, which is what The Bird with the Crystal Plumage essentially is, is going to sacrifice, or never consider to begin with, narrative coherence, one expects certain compensations – the sort of compensations that Phenomena and Suspiria have pouring out of their noses, but which this film does not. Other than the wonderful early scene with Sam trying to get to a wounded Monica in the gallery, with its eerie silence, monstrous sculptures lurking around the living figures, as a piece of direction The Bird with the Crystal Plumage feels almost indifferent. So, too, did another famous Argento film (one that is rather more divisive than this one, in fairness) called The Stendhal Syndrome, which largely bored me until, in this case, the ending, which is, I’ll just say, interesting. What those two movies have in common, it occurs to me, is that they’re non-supernatural thrillers, whereas my favorite Argento films, Suspiria and Phenomena, have darkly fantastical stories that allow Argento to unleash his imagination. Not that I think Argento is a guy who feels particularly leashed most of the time, but his greatest strengths lay with otherworldly material. This seems undeniable to me.
It’s interesting that a major aspect of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage turns up to much better effect in one of the most highly-regarded films of the 1970s, four years after Argento got there (in his own way). I’ll let those who haven’t seen the The Bird with the Crystal Plumage figure out which movie I’m referring to. Beyond that, I’d say stick with Suspiria. Or watch Phenomena forty-three times in a row.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

All of the Best Movies, Part 4: L - N

Hi! Sorry it’s been a while since I last posted a section of my List of Movies I Think are Just Terrific. But you know, sometimes things happen. And one of the things that can happen in these situations is that you realize that you made a terrible mistake the last time you put together one of these things. Such a mistake that you can get kind of depressed about it and wonder why you’re even bothering. These things happen every day, the whole world over. I guess it’s time for another edition of…
Beep-Ups, Biffs, and Oopses

Flags of Our Fathers (d. Clint Eastwood) – This one’s an honest mistake. I regret not including it in the last post, but oh well. I think it’s better than Letters from Iwo Jima.

The Godfather (d. Francis Ford Coppola) - …

Joe vs. the Volcano (d. John Patrick Shanley) – Shut up and leave me alone.

L’Enfer (d. Claude Chabrol) – I guess this should have been in the Es. Well anyway. Wrote about it here.

The Last Detail (d. Hal Ashby) – The one Ashby film (all right, there’s a couple I still haven’t seen) that I completely love. As perfect an execution, in style and especially performance, of its story and ideas as anyone could have brought off. Though of course not just anyone could have done it. Otis Young is the secret weapon.

The Last Hurrah (d. John Ford) – The last half hour is devastating. Ford gives everyone their moment.

The Last of the Mohicans (d. Michael Mann) – Speaking of last half hours…

The Last Temptation of Christ (d. Martin Scorsese) – A gloriously, idiosyncratically artful work of passion. Peter Gabriel’s score is a spectacular.

The Last Waltz (d. Martin Scorsese) – Would make the list for “Caravan” alone.

The Last Wave (d. Peter Weir) – Wrote about it here.

The Late Show (d. Robert Benton) – I liked watching Art Carney punch that guy.

Late Spring (d. Yasujiro Ozu) – It’s all building to that last quiet slump.

Le Bonheur (d. Agnes Varda) – And this is building to its final chilling shrug.

A Legend or Was It? (d. Keisuke Kinoshita) – A great, brutal reckoning with Japan’s war crimes.

The Life of Oharu (d. Kenji Mizoguchi) – Wrote about it here.

Like Someone in Love (d. Abbas Kiarostami) – Wrote about it here.

Limelight (d. Charles Chaplin) – Sentimentality is good. Wrote about it here.

Lincoln (d. Steven Spielberg) – Wrote about it here.

Lips of Blood (d. Jean Rollin) – Wrote about it here. Say, this part of the list is pretty easy!

Listen to Me Marlon (d. Stevan Riley) – Brando, well beyond stardom and in the realm of Legend on Earth, trying to hypnotize himself into not eating so much apple pie is one of the most heartbreaking and humanizing things I’ve ever seen (well, heard).

Little Shop of Horrors (d. Frank Oz) – The studio edit of this would have made the list, too, but Oz’s cut that finally appeared on the Blu-ray release is pretty jaw-dropping.

Living Dead Girl (d. Jean Rollin) – Wrote about it here.

Logan (d. James Mangold) – I just saw this recently but you know what, I’m gonna go ahead and add it to the list. I enjoyed it that much.

The Loneliest Planet (d. Julia Loktev) – Before seeing this, I’d heard that the film hinged on a single moment. I didn’t know what it was, and when it happened I was all “Oh shit…”

The Long Day Closes (d. Terence Davies) – The sequence set to Debbie Reynolds singing “Tammy” is almost overwhelming.

The Long Good Friday (d. John Mackenzie) – Possibly the single greatest performance Bob Hoskins ever gave. That last shot is monumental.

The Long Goodbye (d. Robert Altman) – Altman was one of America’s greatest genre directors. He’d probably hate that description, but oh well.

Long Weekend (d. Colin Eggleston) – A brilliant horror film, full of slow, quiet, creeping dread and mystery. Check it out.

Lost in America (d. Albert Brooks) – The Desert Inn has heart. The Desert Inn has heart.

Love and Death (d. Woody Allen) – The best of Woody Allen’s early absurd comedies. Allen arguing with a ghost about how much a watch is worth makes me laugh every time.

Mad Love (d. Karl Freund) – Wrote about it here.

Mad Max: Fury Road (d. George Miller) – I found the action scenes to be pretty exciting.

Magnolia (d. Paul Thomas Anderson) – Pretty ballsy for a third film, in my opinion.

Make Way for Tomorrow (d. Leo McCarey) – Wrote about it here.

Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (d. Christopher Speeth) – Wrote about it here.

Malcolm X (d. Spike Lee) – In the genre of “birth to death” biopics, a subgenre of the biopic which excludes almost all the good ones, this is the great one. It’s immense.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (d. Alfred Hitchcock) – The 1956 one. As others have pointed out before me, one of the fascinations of this movie is the prickly nature of Stewart and Day’s marriage. They seem like real people, which therefore serves the suspense, and so on. Hitchcock knew what was up, is what I’m getting at.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (d. John Ford) – Possibly my favorite Ford movie, though it’s getting harder to pick these days. In any case, goddamn is John Wayne superb in this.

Manhunter (d. Michael Mann) – It’s just you and me now, sport.

Maniac (d. William Lustig) – Wrote about it here.

The Manson Family (d. Jim Van Bebber) – Don’t take this film’s presence on this list as a recommendation, necessarily. And Van Bebber seems like a real asshole. Wrote about it here.

Marathon Man (d. John Schlesinger) – This would be immeasurably better had they kept the original ending from William Goldman’s novel, but even so, pretty great stuff.

Margaret (d. Kenneth Lonergan) – An epic film set in the present day, with almost everything that happens occurring within maybe a few square miles. That’s one of the things that makes it seem so rare.

Martin (d. George A. Romero) – Wrote about it here, a little bit, sort of. Romero’s masterpiece.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (d. Peter Weir) – It’s a perfect film. There is nothing wrong with it. No mistakes were made.

The Master (d. Paul Thomas Anderson) – Wrote about it here.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (d. Robert Altman) – See my entry for The Long Goodbye. And it’s interesting how a guy like Altman couple publicly disdain things like plot, even story, yet still construct one of the Western genre’s most suspenseful sequences.

Mean Streets (d. Martin Scorsese) – Wrote about it here.

Melancholia (d. Lars Von Trier) – Pretty ingenious in conception, and gorgeous in execution. I apologize to Kirsten Dunst for not realizing how good she is.

Memories of Murder (d. Bong Joon-Ho) – South Korea’s Zodiac. Weirdly funny, somewhat terrifying.

Messiah of Evil (d. Willard Huyck) – Supposedly, Huyck had no interest in horror movies, but it was easy to get them funded and he wanted to make a movie. It should humble contemporary horror filmmakers to see how many chances, Huyck took.

Miami Blues (d. George Armitage) – Fred Ward was born to play Hoke Mosley.

Miller’s Crossing (d. Joel and Ethan Coen) – It’s not going too far to say that in 1990, cinematically speaking, this movie changed my life. And twenty-seven years later, it’s just as great.

Million Dollar Baby (d. Clint Eastwood) – I was down on this when I saw it in the theater. I rewatched it not long ago, and holy shit, I am sorry for my earlier opinions.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (d. Paul Schrader) – The most visually inventive Paul Schrader has ever been, and the most complex film he’s made. It’s unbelievable that a studio distributed this.

Modern Romance (d. Albert Brooks) – Packed with some of the greatest comic sequences in any film, almost like stand-alone sketches, but which hang together as part of the larger film. Unimpeachable. “Try the box, you’ll like it.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (d. Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones) – Their funniest film.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian (d. Terry Jones) – Their best film.

Monty Python’s Meaning of Life (d. Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam) – Still a pretty terrific film.

The Most Dangerous Game (d. Irvin Pichel, Ernest B. Schoedsack) – Fun as hell.

Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (d. Errol Morris) – My favorite Morris film. Bizarre and disturbing.

Mr. Turner (d. Mike Leigh) – Not the film I was expecting, nor the performance I was expecting from Timothy Spall. It’s wonderful to be surprised by biopics that are weird and unsettling.

Mulholland Dr. (d. David Lynch) – The film that keeps on giving.

Munich (d. Steven Spielberg) – Some of the best direction of Spielberg’s career. His eye for violence, his sense of its power, meaning, horror, and occasional necessity is unlike any other filmmaker at his level.

Naked (d. Mike Leigh) – With just a nudge, this could have turned into an arthouse horror film.

Naked Lunch (d. David Cronenberg) – Wrote about it here.
Network (d. Sidney Lumet) – Seems kind of sarcastic to me.

The Nice Guys (d. Shane Black) – “I don’t think I can die!”

Night Moves (d. Arthur Penn) – Possibly my favorite ending to any 70s thriller.

Nightmare Alley (d. Edmund Goulding) – I will admit to wishing this had ended maybe one minute earlier. The line it should have closed on is still a punch in the face, though.

Nil by Mouth (d. Gary Oldman) – Ray Winstone. Goddamn.

The Ninth Configuration (d. William Peter Blatty) – The spiritual flip of The Exorcist. But same investigation, and same conclusion.

No Country for Old Men (d. Joel and Ethan Coen) – The aesthetic thrill is still there, but this film now depresses me so much that the last time I tried watching it, I couldn’t make it through. This is a compliment.

No Home Movie (d. Chantal Akerman) – I think I’ve been doomed to think about this film once a day for the rest of my life. And the guy who says this doesn’t count as a movie can fuck off.

Nosferatu (d. F. W. Murnau) – Wrote about it here (sort of).

Nosferatu – Phantom der Nacht (d. Werner Herzog) Wrote about it there (sort of).

Nostalghia (d. Andrei Tarkovsky) – Wrote about it here.

Notorious (d. Alfred Hitchcock) – Of Hitchcock’s truly great films, this seems like the most underappreciated. Watch it again, it’s stupendous.

Nymphomaniac (d. Lars Von Trier) – Yeah, you heard me.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

All is Vague

On June 13, Arrow Video is releasing Ovidio Assonitis's 1981 slasher film called Madhouse (also known as There Was a Little Girl and And When She Was Bad, both of which fit the story better than Madhouse) on home video. Possibly not as well-known as Assonitis’s Tentacles and certainly less famous than Piranha II: The Spawning, which Assonitis, one of the film’s producers, took over from James Cameron, Madhouse is a genuine oddity, both in that it goes places you likely won’t expect, and is considerably better than I, at least, assumed it would be.

It’s about a woman named Julia (Trish Everly, in her only screen credit), a teacher at a school for the deaf, who is informed by her uncle James (Dennis Robertson), a priest, that her twin sister Mary (Allison Biggers), who has been locked up in a mental hospital since she was a child, would like to see her. Julia’d rather not, given the abuse she suffered at Mary’s hands when they were young, but she agrees. Oh by the way, her uncle says, your sister doesn’t look like you anymore due to a very weird and disfiguring disease. Convenient. Honestly, you do have to hand it Assonitis for concocting a reason for him to not have to cast twins, or mess around with camera tricks so that Everly could exist as two people on one screen. And that’s the only reason he did it, too, because this disease Mary’s suffering from makes no further impact. At any rate, the meeting between the sisters goes poorly, and not long after people start getting murdered. One of the weapons used is a vicious attack dog, not unlike the one Mary used to have as a pet. Also, Mary escapes.

There’s actually a good deal more to it, a lot of it coming in a rush in the last half hour. There’s one major twist that I predicted about a minute before it was revealed. I’m not sure if that counts. What I definitely failed to predict was that the pool of potential victims would be so inclusive, or that Assonitis would attempt to get by at least as much on mood as on gore (this being, in essence, a slasher film). Assonitis seems at least somewhat interested in embracing the chaos inherent in this particular subgenre, not merely to inspire the bloody mayhem he’s bound by law to get across on screen, but as something almost thematic. I’m not sure he quite gets there, but I appreciate him taking a swing at it, and at least we get some striking and unnerving imagery as a result. One bit is alarmingly similar to a climactic moment in another slasher film that also came out in 1981. I’m certain it’s not possible the makers of either film could have seen the other before going into production on their own. I also can’t tell you which other 1981 slasher film I’m referring to without spoiling Madhouse somewhat. Perhaps it’s not going too far to say that both scenes were doubtlessly inspired by The Texas Chain Saw Massacre? Who among us can say.

You might infer from the above that when the chips are down Assonitis delivers on the viscera, as audiences for this sort of movie would both expect and demand. I think he does, but I can imagine a certain type of filmgoer disagreeing with me. One major death is off-screen completely – so off-screen, in fact, that I was forced to put two and two together. Which I didn’t mind. The last death in the film is pretty much a whole-hog kind of affair, violence-wise. I don’t know that I’ve seen the kind of damage done to a human body by the particular weapon used depicted in quite this way before. Assonitis made it seem like the kind of thing you’d want to avoid suffering from yourself, which, if that’s not the whole idea, I don’t know what is.

The cast is also intriguing. Largely made up, as these sorts of films often are, of veteran TV and movie character actors, stand-outs include Robertson and Michael MacRae as Julia’s boyfriend. I really liked MacRae’s work here – there’s a real ease and presence to him, which helps to make the more every-day scenes he’s in seem alive enough so that Madhouse seems whole, rather than a clumsily separated series of murders. Dennis Robertson as the priest has that same effect on the film, if not quite the same approach to his role. He’s a bit more dramatic about things, but then, so are most of his scenes.

Trish Everly’s the one I can’t figure out. Where’d she go? Her performance ain’t bad. She comes off a little bit untrained here and there, but I liked how she handled some of her big moments at the end. These moments involve her being almost consumed by terror. I can’t imagine this is easy to do, but she does it. So where’d she go? John Martin, who wrote the booklet essay that accompanies the Arrow Video release doesn’t know either. So I guess as far as screen acting goes, she’s the terrorized Julia, and that’s it. What a life.