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October 17 2017

Red Christmas


Craig Anderson - 2017
Artsploitation Films BD Region A

When a movie gets sent to me for review, even one not specifically requested, I try to give it a chance. While I understand that some films are intentionally provocative, my problem is not only that I find Red Christmas muddleheaded, but completely dispiriting.

A montage of footage of pro-life and anti-abortion protests culminates in a scene with an abortion clinic bombed. A man surveys the damage and sees a small hand appearing out of a yellow bucket. Twenty years later, someone named Cletus (rhymes with fetus) with a heavily bandaged face, cloaked in black, is in search of his mother. Appearing at home of the matriarch played by Dee Wallace, an attempted Christmas day family reunion goes very much awry.

The opening scene of murder in Deep Red is deeper, redder and more evocative of Christmas than the whole of Red Christmas. Anderson might have been better off had he emphasized the Australian location, with December being the height of Summer, rather than passing off the setting as generic North America. Even as a horror film, Red Christmas is too bland to distinguish itself.

The blu-ray comes with a commentary track. More interesting is the interview with Dee Wallace with the actress discussing some of the highlights of her career. Best is the frequently funny interview with Gerard O'Dwyer, an actor with Down's Syndrome, whose role in Red Christmas borders on the autobiographical.

October 15 2017

Coffee Break

The Breaking Point.jpg
John Garfield in The Breaking Point (Michael Curtiz - 1950)

October 13 2017

Gespräch mit Roland Klick

BÜBCHEN (Roland Klick, 1968)
Zu meiner Freude feiert der Regieverband den Regisseur Roland Klick (*1939) und verleiht ihm den „Metropolis”-Preis für sein Lebenswerk. Ich habe die Ehre mit Roland Klick über seine Arbeit zu sprechen, und zwar am Sonntag, den 5.11.2017, um 13 h, im „Roten Kino 1” der HFF München, wo auch die Werkschau seiner Filme stattfindet.

Roland Klick (unbewaffnet) bei der Arbeit an SUPERMARKT, ca. 1973. Mario Adorf in DEADLOCK (Roland Klick, 1970)

Treppen und Sitzgelegenheiten

Ein Treppenexzess sondergleichen, in Dallas 2.04, "Bypass". Genauer gesagt eine Trias: Frauen, Treppen, Alkohol. Zunächst vor dem Anwesen, dessen Herrin Sue Ellen bald zu werden glaubt. Der wehende Wind. Das Whiskeyglas rückt ins Zentrum der Einstellung, wie um das Bild zu kalibrieren. Frustrationssuff und Wohlstandspsychose, aber schon auch Stilbewußtsein.

Die Bilder malt eine andere Frau: Pamela. Ihre Fantasie ist weniger konkret, aber letztlich genauso vulgär.

Eigentlich im Gegenteil. Sue Ellens Tanzschritte auf der Treppe sind ehrlicher Ausdruck von Lebensfreude und von einem hedonistischen Körpergefühl, das sie selbst andernorts kaum ausleben kann (sicher nicht in der Ehe mit J.R.), das Pamela aber vermutlich nicht einmal vom Hörensagen kennt.

Wenn es zur Konfrontation mit Pamela kommt, verengt sich das Bild, ein zweites Geländer taucht auf, sodass man den Eindruck hat, dass es überall nur noch Treppen, Treppen und nochmal Treppen gibt. Die Treppen verlieren ihren erotischen Reiz und werden zum Gefängnis. Und dann taucht auch noch die Schwiegermutter auf.

Ein weiterer Blickwechsel, diesmal Pamela und die Schwiegermutter, die der Treppe eine gewisse Alltäglichkeit zurückgibt. Pamela, die von allen Figuren der Serie am wenigsten weiß, was sie will, schaut ihr verträumt hinterher.

October 12 2017

One last big job: How heist movies tell their stories

The Underneath (1995).

DB here:

The announcement of Ocean’s Eight (premiering, when else?, on 8 June next year) reminded me of the staying power of the heist genre, also known as the big-caper film. I discuss it a bit in Reinventing Hollywood, my book on 1940s storytelling, but it developed and spread out most vigorously from the 1950s on.

In its origins it relies on masculine roles; if women are present they’re likely to be at best helpers, at worst traitors. The big job is likely to be endangered by a man telling his wife or mistress too much, and then the police or rival gangs may interfere. So the news that Ocean’s Eight will center on a female gang constitutes an intriguing wrinkle. (Will a boyfriend try to spoil the caper?)   Warners’ ambitions for another trilogy seem evident: presumably the entry is Eight because Warners hopes for a Nine and a Ten. Commenters are already worried that a “feminized” version runs the risk of flopping the way Ghostbusters did last year, but I’m more hopeful. The reason is that clever storytelling is encouraged in this genre. There’s a chance that the film, produced though not directed by Steven Soderbergh, will show us that this old dog has new tricks.

Because I’m interested in how the storytelling strategies of popular cinema, the heist film is a natural thing for me to consider. Refreshing the genre may involve not just adjusting the story world—giving men’s roles to women—but also considering ways of handling two other dimensions of narrative: plot structure and cinematic narration. I argue in Reinventing that Hollywood filmmaking uses a sort of variorum principle, a pressure to explore as many narrative devices as possible within the constraints of tradition. For this reason, the prospect of Ocean’s Eight prodded me to think about how convention and innovation work in the caper movie. It’s also a good excuse to go back and watch some skilful cinema.


From the fringes to the core

The Asphalt Jungle (1950).

It’s useful to think of a genre as a category having a core and a periphery. At the core are prime, “pure” instances: prototypes. Stretching out from it are less central, fuzzier cases. Prototypical musicals are Footlight Parade, Shall We Dance?, Meet Me in St. Louis, and My Fair Lady. Somewhat less central are concert films and musical biopics like Lady Sings the Blues and Coal Miner’s Daughter. At the periphery are movies with a single song or dance number. Of course the category changes across history; a critic in 1960 might have picked North by Northwest as a prototypical spy thriller, but ten years later a Bond film would have probably held that place.

The prototypical heist film, critics seem to agree, doesn’t just include a robbery. There are robberies in films about Robin Hood and gentleman thieves like Raffles and the Saint. The outlaw or bandit film like They Live by Night and Bonnie and Clyde contains a string of robberies, but they wouldn’t be at the center of the heist category.

Donald Westlake proposed a concise characterization: “We follow the crooks before, during, and after a crime, usually a robbery.” This indicates two things. First, the plot is structured around the big caper, though there might be lesser crimes enabling it, such as stealing weapons. Second, the viewpoint is organized around the criminals, not the detectives who might pursue them, as in a police procedural. By these criteria, High Sierra (1941), although allied to the bandit tradition, fits because most of the film concerns a single robbery, its preparations and aftermath.

Westlake shrewdly goes on to note that the interest of a heist plot inverts that of the traditional locked-room detective story. Instead of wondering how something difficult was done, we wonder how something difficult will be done. “The puzzle exists before the crime is committed.” To fill in the how, crooks with specific skills (safecracking, demolition, getaway driving, and so on) are recruited. Because the process matters so much, Westlake adds that heist plots focus on details of time and physical circumstance, and they draw attention to impediments such as “dogs, locks, alarms, watchmen, and complicated traps.” Most of these features are missing from High Sierra; we’re not encouraged to speculate how the job will be pulled, there’s little meticulous planning and no division of labor by expertise, and the only dog is friendly. So it’s unlikely to be a core instance of the genre as we now consider it.

Most critics consider The Asphalt Jungle (novel, 1949; film, 1950) a solid prototype. In fiction and film it’s not the very earliest instance, but it displays what we might call the “completed arc” of a heist plot. A gang of varying talents is assembled and funded to pull off a jewel robbery, which succeeds partly at first and eventually fails.

A less famous example comes from 1934, Don Tracy’s novel Criss-Cross. Here an alienated loner finds that his long-ago girlfriend has married a local crook. To get her back, the hero agrees to be the inside man in a robbery of the armored truck he drives. The heist goes badly, with the hero shooting the gangster and getting shot himself. He’s acclaimed as a hero, but fate catches up with him when a blackmailer who knows the truth starts putting the squeeze on him. Where The Asphalt Jungle ranges across many characters’ knowledge in a fairly tight time span, Criss Cross restricts its point of view to the protagonist but traces his life over a long period. These storytelling options, ingredient to any narrative whatsoever, will shape how the heist plot is handled.

Criss-Cross and The Asphalt Jungle show that we’re dealing with an exceptionally schematic plot pattern. For convenience we can distinguish five parts.

Circumstances lead one or more characters to decide to execute a heist (robbery, hijacking, kidnapping).

The initiators recruit participants.

As a group they are briefed and prepare their plan. They study their target, rehearse their scheme, or take steps to make it easier.

The heist itself begins and concludes.

The aftermath of the heist, failed or successful, shows the fates of the participants.

There are other conventions, nicely laid out by Stuart Kaminsky in 1974 and more recently by Daryl Lee. But I’ll just concentrate on this structure and how it governs narration, because these aspects show very clearly the constant dynamic of schema and revision in the filmmaking tradition.


Four capers, mostly unhappy

Criss Cross (1948).

Four films in the period covered in my book point toward the heist genre, though only one became a core instance. The presence of a “consolidating” film might be one way genres emerge.

The earliest candidate is an unlikely one. In 1941 Laura and S. J. Perelman mounted a notably unsuccessful play called The Night Before Christmas, a farce in which crooks buy a luggage store in order to tunnel from its basement into the bank vault next door. Although Paramount was a backer of the stage show, Warners bought the rights and revamped it for Edward G. Robinson, who had had success in gangster comedies like A Slight Case of Murder (1938). The adaptation, Larceny, Inc. (1942) maintained the premise but revised the plot, multiplying the complications that face the leader Pressure and his two minions. The twist is that thanks to Pressure’s daughter, who’s unaware of the scheme, business starts booming and the crooks find themselves prosperous businessmen. Woody Allen swiped the premise for his Small-Time Crooks (2000).

Just as we don’t expect a comedy to be the initial entry in a genre mostly associated with drama, we might expect that the early entries in the genre would be the tidiest, with complex variations building on them. Actually, two precursors of The Asphalt Jungle display remarkable complexity.

The simpler one, Criss Cross (1948), starts late in the preparation phase: the night before the caper, when the gang is holding a party to distract a local cop who has his eye on them. We learn that Steve is working with Slim’s wife Anna to double-cross the gang. The next day, Steve is driving the armored car and recalling how he got into this situation. A flashback provides the circumstances for the robbery—Steve’s pursuit of Anna, her marrying Slim, and Steve’s impulsive proposal of a robbery to protect Anna from Slim’s punishment.

We return to the armored car’s routine briefly before we flash back to the planning phase. The robbers assemble and the task is reviewed by a mastermind they hire. This second flashback ends and, back in the present, we see the heist itself. The aftermath of the bloody robbery shows Steve in the hospital, honored by the community. A thug kidnaps him and takes him to Anna. Slim has survived the gun battle and finds the couple; he kills them before he is mowed down by the police.

Early as Criss Cross is in the history of the film genre, the plot components are already being scrambled. Thanks to 1940s Hollywood’s commitment to flashbacks and character subjectivity, the novel’s linear action gets fractured, compressed, and stretched. Moreover, in most films, the decision to pull the heist is made fairly early. Here and in the novel, circumstances slowly force Steve to rescue Anna from the man who mistreats her. The buildup to this decision consumes nearly forty minutes of an 87-minute movie. Similarly, the aftermath of the heist is quite protracted, running about twenty minutes. And whereas other films (and novels) dwell on the recruitment of thieving talent, here this is elided. That’s because the other members of the gang are less significant than the central triangle of Steve, Anna, and Slim.

The Killers (1946) is even more complex because it clamps the block construction of Citizen Kane onto the heist schema. We start with one bit of the heist aftermath: the death of the gas-station attendant Ole. Like Kane, who also dies in his bed at the start of his film, Ole is the protagonist of the past-tense story. We next meet the protagonist of the present-time story, the insurance investigator Riordan, who functions like the reporter Thompson in Kane, and sometimes even gets the same silhouette treatment.


The rest of the film splits up the basic parts of the heist schema, rearranges their order, and presents them through a series of several flashback blocks, anchored in six characters’ testimony.

The heist itself is very brief, running only about two minutes, and the planning phase is only a little longer. As in Criss Cross, the leadup and the aftermath constitute the bulk of the film, but these phases are broken up into many bits, and these are often shuffled out of chronological order. We see Ole’s discovery by Big Jim years after the heist and then we see Ole, days after the heist, distressed that his lover Kitty has betrayed him. Similarly, a crucial event after the heist—Ole’s stealing the loot from the gang—precedes a scene before the heist in which he learns the gang is planning to double-cross him. We have to reconstruct the canonical sequence, from circumstance to aftermath, out of fragments revealed in testimony taken by Riordan.

Critics haven’t taken Criss Cross and The Killers as the first core instances of the heist film, perhaps because these movies complicate the classic plot template. In addition, they downplay the planning and execution phases. The heist scenes are relatively minor compared to the time devoted to other phases, particularly the circumstantial buildup. Moreover, the robber teams aren’t vividly characterized and don’t display a range of expertise. The emphasis falls on Steve and Ole, both played by Burt Lancaster, as the beautiful losers who become suckers for treacherous women and their brutal men.

By contrast, the linearity of The Asphalt Jungle throws the plot template into crisp relief. Both novel and film offer a full-blown enactment of central features picked out by Stuart Kaminsky. The gang, despite low social standing, has many skills. They’re held together by a leader who may also be a brainy planner. The robbers’ plan requires “skill, practice, training, and above all, perfect timing.” The gang’s resourcefulness is tested by accidents. The caper is partly successful but largely a failure, often through sexual weakness on the part of some players.

W.R. Burnett’s book opens up the wide narrative possibilities of the genre, thanks to an expanded group of characters. Where Don Tracy’s novel Criss Cross confined itself to relatively few figures, Burnett innovates by developing no fewer than eighteen distinct individuals, all somehow connected to the jewel robbery. New roles are assigned that will be staples of the genre—financier, go-between, bent cop, owner of a safe house. We see policemen of all ranks, a news reporter, the master mind Dr. Riedenschneider, the fixer Cobby, the bankroller Emmerich (who has a wife, a mistress, and a hired detective), and the four men on the team, two of whom have women attached.

The novel lays out the canonical action phases with surgical efficiency. But as in the films I’ve just mentioned, the planning and the heist itself take relatively little space. Given so many characters’ contribution to the action, their gradual convergence and their dispersed fates dominate the book. Over a hundred pages are devoted to setting up the circumstances and recruiting the gang. The aftermath, tracing the outcome for all involved, runs another 140 pages.

The film adaptation retains the novel’s scope, trimming only a couple of minor characters. It moves briskly among the ensemble, attaching us to several in turn, so we know more than any one character does. The narration creates parallels among the team members and their affiliates (such as four women of different classes, with varying commitments to their men).

The result is something of a network narrative, a cross-section of several people whose lives change because of the robbery. There’s no clear-cut protagonist like Steve in Criss Cross. Dr. Riedenschneider has the most screen time, but the film begins and ends with the hooligan Dix, and the fate of both men dominates the climax. I point out in Reinventing Hollywood that a multiple-protagonist film often gives extra weight to one or two characters.


50s and 60s stylings

Violent Saturday (1955).

With The Asphalt Jungle as a robust prototype, writers and filmmakers developed the heist plot throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Despite his clumsy style (”He nodded with his head”), Lionel White became known as “the king of the caper novel” for his tireless variants on robberies, hijackings, and kidnappings. The other major figure was the far superior Donald Westlake, who  wrote brutal heist tales as “Richard Stark” and comic ones under his own name.

In the comic register, Westlake was beaten to the post by heist films from England. The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) showed a timid clerk engineering the theft of gold bullion, which he disguises as kitschy miniature Eiffel Towers. The Lady Killers (1955) centered on a gang fooling their landlady into thinking that their planning meetings are actually string-quartet sessions. In Italy, the classic Big Deal on Madonna Street (I soliti ignoti, 1958) showed five incompetents trying to break into a pawnshop safe.

Big Deal was considered a parody of a much more serious film, one that was by then a landmark: Rififi (Du rififi chez les hommes, 1955). It did a great deal to consolidate the genre in France, along with Touchez pas au grisbi (1954) and Bob le flambeur (1956). (Both The Killers and Criss Cross had been imported in the Forties.) In England, the heist drama was seen in The Good Die Young (1954), while in the US there were 5 Against the House (1955), Violent Saturday (1955), Plunder Road (1957), The Big Caper (1957, from a White novel), and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). The year 1960 saw a remarkable number of releases, with The League of Gentlemen (U.K.), The Day They Robbed the Bank of England, Seven Thieves, and most famously Ocean’s 11 (all U.S.).

Through the 1960s the genre proliferated, including a remake of The Asphalt Jungle (Cairo, 1963), Jules Dassin’s near-self-parody of Rififi (Topkapi, 1964), and a string of heist films that mixed in romantic comedy (e.g., Gambit, 1966; How to Steal a Million, 1966). The Italian Job (1964) became a cult movie, with tourists visiting the sites of shooting in Turin. The genre has remained robust throughout world cinema ever since.

The very rigidity of its format and the constraints it lays down, have allowed for ingenious innovations. I’ll sample some of those from the genre’s first dozen or so years, concentrating on three areas: the differing emphasis given to the plot phases; variants of point-of-view; and manipulations of time.


Where’s the action?

Rififi (1955).

The Asphalt Jungle offers a fairly pure geometry: the heist, lasting about eleven minutes, ends just before the film’s midpoint. On the other side of that is another big scene: a gunfight initiated by Emmerich’s henchman Brannom when Dr. Riedenschneider and Dix bring in the loot. That confrontation takes another seven minutes, so the heist and its immediate wrapup sit at the center of the running time. What led up to the heist, the circumstances, recruitment, and planning phases, consume the first forty-five minutes of the film, and the aftermath of the heist, affecting the surviving characters, will take just about as long. This balanced geometry, putting the heist snugly at the center of the plot but devoting most time to showing many lives leading up to and away from the crime, suits the extensive characterization of all involved.

This is a neat structure, but not the only possibility. Any phase of the action can be given great weight. The first half hour of Bob le flambeur is an episodic introduction to Bob’s routines and associates. It’s the circumstantial phase—he’s running out of money—presented at low pressure, emphasizing instead the fascinating milieu Bob coolly drifts through. Only when Roger points out a croupier at the Nantes casino does Bob formulate “the job of a lifetime.” Then crew assembly and planning can begin. As the plot develops, characters and relationships presented casually in the exposition become crucial to the heist and its unraveling.

Other phases can be stretched out. Ocean’s 11 dwells on the phase of gathering the talent. Before the start, Danny Ocean has already conceived the heist, but we aren’t told the plan. Instead we watch his team members converge on Las Vegas. Not until the film’s midpoint, at 53:00, is the plan revealed in a briefing. The dawdling exposition suits a film about cool guys hanging out.

The formation of the crew is exceptionally protracted in Odds Against Tomorrow, because here two members hesitate about participating. The racist Earl Slater, wracked by the shame of not providing for his wife, finally gets her to agree to let him join. Not until twenty-three minutes from the end does the African-American musician Johnny Ingram finally accept a role in the heist, which immediately becomes the film’s climax.

The planning phase sometimes includes a rehearsal for the heist, and that may require a subsidiary crime, such as stealing keys or a vehicle. The League of Gentlemen has an unusually long planning phase, in which the gang masquerades as soldiers in order to seize weapons from a military post. This robbery, running nearly twenty minutes, takes longer than the film’s main heist but serves to demonstrate the team’s resourcefulness and esprit de corps. The men’s precision and resourcefulness (based on their wartime experience) lead us to expect a successful main event.

Kaminsky suggests that the big-caper genre resembles the soldiers-on-a-mission movie, which centers on the details of a process executed by skillful specialists. That display of process comes to the fore in The Asphalt Jungle’s central robbery, which initiated the convention of detailing the mechanics of the heist. Other films expanded the heist sequence to larger proportions than was evident in The Killers or Criss Cross. Rififi became the model; its heist runs twenty-five minutes without any words being spoken. (That sequence is part of an even longer wordless stretch that runs over thirty minutes.) Dassin’s film meticulously breaks down the steps of a complicated robbery, allowing us to appreciate the men’s clever planning while, as usual, ratcheting up moments of suspense when it appears they might fail.

After Rififi, heist scenes got longer and more intricate. The one in Big Deal on Madonna Street runs twenty minutes, those in Seven Thieves and The Day They Robbed the Bank of England run thirty minutes, and those in Topkapi and The Italian Job approach forty minutes. To motivate these long, virtuosic passages, there need to be many obstacles, many ingenious ways around them, and many characters concentrating on their assigned duties.

Long or short, the heist can be shifted off-center. The heist can be the climax, as in The Big Caper, or it can be virtually the film’s entire second half, as in The Italian Job (which arguably doesn’t complete the heist and so never provides a proper aftermath). Topkapi’s flamboyant robbery, involving elaborate subterfuges, dominates the film’s latter stretches, leading to a quick reversal in its epilogue. The heist is finished early on in The Lady Killers, since the crucial action is the long aftermath in which, contradicting the title, the crooks dispose of one another. By contrast, the heist dominates nearly all of Larceny, Inc. Most of the film is devoted to the crooks’ slowly deepening tunnel, as the process is interrupted by breaks in the water main, a geyser of furnace oil, and their decision to abandon their plan in favor of going straight—before another crook comes along to continue the caper.

Or the heist can launch the film. In Plunder Road, after the train robbery is completed, the rest of the film is the aftermath, consisting of chases and suspense sequences. The circumstances, recruitment, and planning phases are alluded to in dialogue, as suits a low-budget production. The plot of Touchez pas au grisbi starts the morning after the caper and shows thieves trying to protect their loot from a treacherous drug dealer. It was probably inevitable that somebody would make a heist movie that keeps the heist offscreen and makes the action one long aftermath.


Steering the moving spotlight

Topkapi (1964).

Many films based on mystery rely on restricting a character’s range of knowledge, as in detective novels told in the first person. But suspense, Hitchcock and others recognized, relies on greater access to story information. If there’s a bomb under the table, Hitch advised, tell the viewer but don’t tell the characters. The heist film, as an account of how a crime is committed, depends more on suspense than mystery. So we’d expect a constant shuttling from character to character, filling us in on how the scheme is going and letting us worry about impending dangers.

This is generally what we find. Criss Cross is unusual in confining us to what Steve knows about Anna’s and Slim’s real agendas, and this confinement is what yields the surprises that pop up in the film’s final stretches. Mostly, though, heist movies and novels use omniscient narration. Employing what I call in Reinventing Hollywood the “moving spotlight” approach, the film shifts us from attachment to one character to another.

The moving spotlight permits us to understand the choreography of the crime, in which many characters play a part, and to feel suspense when matters of timing or accident intrude. Indeed, the convention of the unforeseen accident that spoils the heist relies on our breaking attachment to the crooks and getting privileged access to the off-schedule night watchman, the passing witness, or the failed piece of machinery. In Topkapi we and not the thieves learn how a stray bird will upset their getaway.

This omniscient narration (which need not tell us absolutely everything) can be deployed in a range of ways. One option is chapter titles, as in Big Deal on Madonna Street (and revived by Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs). A more common resource is the non-character narrator, present as an authoritative voice-over. In Bob le flambeur, a worldly male voice introduces us to Bob’s daily routine and comments somewhat cynically on his place in his milieu.

A similar all-knowing voice introduces us one by one to the heisters in The Good Die Young; there it eases the transition into expository flashbacks. Topkapi treats this convention, as others, with self-conscious playfulness. At the beginning the beguiling woman in the gang addresses the camera and explains that the heist aims to get the emerald she covets. She doesn’t take this narrating role again until the very end, in a brief epilogue that replays the gathering of the gang in stylized form.

Heist films must often choose whether to widen the field of view to include either the cops or civilians. Armored Car Robbery (1950), for me a peripheral instance of a heist film, alternates the gang’s activities—which do pass through the phases I’ve outlined—with the detectives’ investigation. The result is balanced between heist film and police procedural. Something similar happens in Violent Saturday (1955), which devotes most of its plot to a gang’s scheme to rob a mining town’s bank. Crosscut with the gang’s gathering and planning are scenes showing several members of the community, each with domestic problems. These scenes, typical of small-town melodrama (dissolute rich people, sexy nurse, repressed librarian, lovelorn bank manager), not only pad out the film but show us characters who will be affected by the heist. Some become witnesses and bystanders during the robbery, one is killed, and one, a local mining manager, will be forced to fight the gang at the climax.

The timing and selection of the shifts among characters can build up specific effects. For instance, in Big Deal on Madonna Street, the heist is conceived by Cosimo, a hardheaded crook doing time. A handful of would-be crooks decides to execute the robbery without him. We know, as the gang does not, that he has been released and is conspiring to interfere. The filmmakers could have made Cosimo’s return a surprise revelation, but instead our expectation that he’ll start meddling intensifies our interest.

Similarly, we know, as the Topkapi gang does not, that Arthur is a police spy. But then he confesses to them, so we know, as the Turkish police do not, that he is to be a double agent. The film milks suspense during the scenes in which Arthur relays information to the authorities, and then it makes us wonder how the gang will use their new knowledge of police surveillance. This is the sort of fine-tuned choice about “who knows what when” that heist films must make at every turn.

At a more granular level, when the spotlight is on one character, the filmmakers must choose whether to make those moments, shot by shot, highly restricted or not. In The Killers, Nick Adams’ account of Ole’s reaction to the stranger stopping for gas is more or less plausibly limited to Nick’s ken. But the precise exchange of glances between the driver and the Swede signal to us that Ole has been recognized. Nick doesn’t register this, since he’s standing at the rear of the car (barely visible in my first still, over Ole’s right shoulder).


In effect, this is a narrational aside to the audience. Nick can’t see this significant exchange of glances, and his voice-over doesn’t specify it, so we can’t assume Riordan learns of it. But this privileged moment primes us to see Big Jim as a major menace in scenes to come. This sort of deviation from what a character could plausibly know or notice is common in cinematic narration and differentiates it from literary narration, which is more tightly restricted in handling “point of view.” Classical Hollywood is biased toward unrestricted narration; radical restriction is rare. The heist genre can exploit many fine gradations between attachment to a character and more wide-ranging knowledge.


What’s our clock?

The Killing (1956).

As we’ve seen, two early instances of heist films break with a linear layout of the story. Criss Cross presents what Reinventing Hollywood calls a crisis structure, beginning just before the turning point and flashing back to show what led up to it. The Killers has a refracted narration, with all of the past events passed to the investigator Riordan and us through witnesses’ testimony. The flashbacks in Criss Cross are chronological, but those in The Killers are drastically out of order.

Time-scrambling, then, seems to be especially welcome in the heist film (as not, say, in the Western). The basic plot pattern is such a simple one that shuffling phases or parts of phases doesn’t create confusion. Yet few films of the 1950s I’ve found display the complexity of the Forties examples. Indeed, a time-juggling heist novel, The Lions at the Kill (Simon Kent, 1959) was ironed into straightforward linearity in the film version, Seven Thieves.

The Good Die Young displays a more complicated structure. It begins at a point of crisis, with four men driving in a car to the site of the caper.

The voice-over narrator introduces each man in turn, and then a long flashback explains his backstory. Deprived of information about the heist, we have to wonder how the narration will bring the men together and create their plan.

After the long section explaining each man’s circumstances, all involving women and money, the flashbacks meld. The men gradually come to know each other through frequenting the same pub. Their desperation pushes them toward accepting one man’s proposal that they rob a post office. With so much time spent on preparation and assembly, the actual planning is necessarily brief. Eventually the final flashback flows seamlessly into the present-time situation, initiating a brief replay of the dialogue in the car that opened the film. The heist (devolving into a disastrous gun battle) initiates the climax, and an airport aftermath concludes the film.

The most ambitious 1950s recasting of the nonlinear efforts of the 1940s films is The Killing (1956). The source novel, Lionel White’s Clean Break (1955) consists of interwoven threads. A crook, his pal, a cashier, a bartender, and a crooked cop conspire to rob a racetrack. They will employ helpers to start a fistfight and shoot a racehorse. The early chapters devote short stretches to following each one, already recruited, through the circumstances phase of the heist template. The men assemble at their planning meeting, which is invaded by the snoopy wife of the weak cashier. She then tells her boyfriend about the heist, so another strand involving other characters is introduced.

On the day of the robbery, White’s narration again attaches itself seriatim to each man as he executes his role in the scheme. While the early part of the book had a few mild jumps back in time to follow each heister, the day of the job creates extreme back-and-forth shifts. We follow the bartender, for instance, going to the track on the fateful day, before the next subchapter skips back to the cashier waking up and then going to the same train. In a later section, we skip back to the previous day and attach ourselves to the sniper who will shoot the racehorse. Because of the overlapping lines of action, the shooting of the horse and the starting of the bar fight are presented twice. Everything eventually converges on Johnny Clay, the mastermind, who breaks into the money room and steals the day’s revenue.

These temporal overlaps emerge partly from the description of the action, but they’re also marked by either characters looking at clocks or watches, or by explicit mention in the prose, such as “It was exactly six forty-five when…”

The film version makes these overlapping schedules much more explicit. A detached voice-over describing police routine or criminal behavior had become a commonplace in the 1940s, in both “semidocumentary” films and in radio drama, notably Dragnet. In The Killing, apart from lending an aura of authenticity, the voice-over exaggerates the time markers of the novel by introducing scenes crisply. The first five scenes are introduced with these tags:

“At exactly 3:45…”

“About an hour earlier…”

“At seven PM that same day…”

“A half an hour earlier…”

“At 7:15 that same night…”

These lead-ins remind us of the ticking clock, set up parallels among the characters, and get us acclimated to the film’s method of tracking one character, then jumping back in time to track another. This is moving-spotlight narration on markedly parallel tracks. The same method will be applied during the heist, when ten consecutive scenes and several others will be tagged in the same way. (“Mike O’Reilly was ready at 11:15.”)

It’s not just the repetitions that exaggerate White’s jagged time scheme. When the sniper Nikki is shot after plugging the racehorse, the narrator reports drily: “Nikki was dead at 4:24.” Cut to Johnny leaving a luggage store, and the voice-over announces: “At 2:15 that afternoon Johnny Clay was still in the city.”



The time jumps more or less buried in White’s prose are made dissonant in the film. Here the juxtaposition heightens the likelihood that Johnny’s robbery won’t go according to plan.

The replays are no less sharply profiled. As the scenic blocks move from character to character and skip back in time, they include actions we’ve already seen. The most persistent is the repetition of the track announcer’s calling the start of the crucial seventh race, but we also get replays of the wrestler Maurice starting a fight, the downing of the horse, and glimpses of Johnny waiting to slip into the cash room.

Instead of shuffling flashbacks in the manner of The Killers, The Killing offers brief time chunks stacked in slightly overlapping array until they all square up in a single moment, the consummation of the robbery. This structure allows for the sort of character delineation we find in The Asphalt Jungle while also offering the audience a formal game to enjoy. Kubrick’s film can be seen as pointing in two directions—revising the flashback format of the 1940s entries, but becoming a point of reference for later filmmakers eager to innovate games with time and viewpoint that would remain comprehensible to the audience.

The Killing helped make Clean Break White’s most famous novel. It was often republished under the film’s title. Perhaps in a grateful spirit White’s 1960 novel Steal Big (1960) included this scene.

Donovan didn’t look at the half-dozen worn, barely legible signs in the dingy lobby of the building. He went at once to the elevator and asked for the fifth floor. Getting out of the elevator, he turned left, took a dozen steps and knocked on a pebbled-glass door. The door bore the legend, KUBRIC NOVELTY COMPANY.

Mr. Kubric, it turns out, supplies illegal guns and explosives.


Art for artifice’s sake

Inside Man (2006).

White’s in-joke, along with The Killing’s gamelike approach to structure, reminds us that whatever its claim to realism, this is a highly artificial genre. The strict template and the ritualistic steps in it—recruiting the crew, casing the target, checking watches—invite filmmakers to tinker with self-conscious narration that lets the viewer in on the joke.

One convention, that of the rehearsal for the big job, is flaunted in Bob le flambeur, when the narrator simply breaks into the film with the line, “Here’s how Bob pictured the heist,” and we get a stylized, hypothetical enactment of the job carried off perfectly. In these films, when the rehearsal goes well, you know the real thing will face problems.


Something similar, though suited to light comedy, takes place in Gambit. Here we think we’re seeing the heist as executed (across twenty-three minutes), but it proves to be no more than the fantasy of the crook hatching it. Again, everything that succeeds in the fantasy goes wrong in reality.

As it gained a profile, the genre got reflexive. In the novel that was the source for The League of Gentlemen, the heisters explicitly model their plan on the one in Clean Break. The film version likewise sets its heisters mimicking a pulp novel, though it didn’t specify the title. And in The Wrong Arm of the Law (1963), Peter Sellers’ cockney mastermind promises to show his henchmen “educational films and training films” like Rififi, The Day They Robbed the Bank of England, and The League of Gentlemen.

The opportunities the genre provides for experimenting with story stratagems, sometimes in very self-conscious ways, seem to have been part of the reason later filmmakers tried their hand at it. In the 1990s and 2000s, writers and directors drawn to neo-noir and narrative experiment took up thriller conventions generally, and the heist film was one option.

In Reservoir Dogs (1992), Tarantino revived the shuffling of time and viewpoint that was ingredient to the genre. Although the film pays homage to Clean Break, its form is no less indebted to Criss Cross. Like that film, it flashes back from the day of the heist in order to run through the canonical phases of action. And as in The Killers, those phases are scrambled out of order. Brian Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1995) brings the (very ‘40s) device of the lying flashback to the genre, within the template of police questioning after the heist. Inside Man (2006) mixed to-camera narration, flashbacks, and flashforwards to interrogations after the crime.

Among Americans it’s Steven Soderbergh who has returned to the caper film most frequently. The Underneath (1995) is a remake of Criss Cross, with an extra layer of flashbacks. Logan Lucky (2017), with its deadpan redneck losers, joins the tradition of comic heist movies. Most strikingly, the Ocean’s series makes a virtual fetish of the male camaraderie and playful plot tricks typical of the genre. The films pepper the action with voice-overs, cunning ellipses, and flashbacks within flashbacks. The plots hide key information about the plan. They fill the action with in-jokes, such as a star cameo by Bruce Willis commenting on box-office grosses. Like 1960s films, they incorporate romantic comedy. In Ocean’s Eleven ((2001) Danny and Tess arrange a post-divorce reconciliation, and in Ocean’s Twelve (2004) Danny’s pal Rusty gets involved with police agent Isabel.

Piling up obstacles, reversals, bluffs, and double-bluffs, the films form a kind of anthology of the genre’s tricks. By the time we get to Ocean’s Thirteen (2007), the early phases of the standard plot schema can be given short shrift. We know the gang and its modus operandi, so the bulk of the film becomes a mind-bogglingly intricate heist including everything from planting bedbugs in a hotel room to manufacturing loaded dice in a Mexican factory under threat of strike. The network of rules and roles laid out in the 1950s—master mind, aged expert, financier, crooked helpers, allies and rivals and go-betweens and stooges—are given baroque elaboration and treated with an almost self-congratulatory panache.


So am I looking forward to Ocean’s Eight? It’s directed by Gary Ross, so I don’t expect Soderbergh’s casual sheen. And the target of the heist, a fashion show at the Met, may be a bit too on the nose; why can’t the ladies tackle a payroll or a munitions factory? Still, like a butterfly collector looking for new specimens, I’m quite curious. When it comes to narrative strategies, I’m a sucker for a fresh con.

Thanks to Jim Healy and Geoff Gardner for discussion of the genre.

Stuart Kaminsky’s American Film Genres: Approaches to a Critical Theory of Popular Film (Plaum, 1974) is a trailblazing study, and the chapter on the “big-caper” film is an indispensible starting point for studying this kind of movie. Later editions of the book eliminated this chapter. A wide-ranging recent survey is Daryl Lee’s The Heist Film: Stealing with Style (Wallflower, 2014). Alastair Phillips offers an in-depth analysis of a classic in Rififi (Tauris, 2009).

My quotations from Donald Westlake come from Murderous Schemes: An Anthology of Classic Detective Stories (Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 1 and 126. I also found the entry on Lionel White in Brian Ritt’s Paperback Confidential: Crime Writers of the Paperback Era (Stark House, 2013) helpful. The “KUBRIC” passage in White’s Steal Big (Fawcett, 1960) is on p. 47. White much influenced Westlake, as I hope to show in a future entry, but Westlake was a far superior stylist, as I discuss a little in this entry. See also this note on Levi Stahl’s anthology of Westlake nonfiction.

For more on analyzing narrative see “Three Dimensions of Film Narrative” and “Understanding Film Narrative: The Trailer.” Tarantino’s debts to the 1940s are reviewed in this entry. See as well my recent entry on thrillers. I analyze the convoluted narrative of The Killers in Chapter 9 of Narration in the Fiction Film. The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies discusses 1990s filmmakers’ relation to the Forties. Multiple-protagonist plotting is considered in Chapter 3 of Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling.

The concept of schema and revision is considered here as applied to style; this entry, like Reinventing, applies it to narrative principles. My Dunkirk entry points out affinities between the overlapped time frames in The Killing and the three-track scheme Nolan gives us. Unlike Kubrick, Dunkirk applies the principle to the entire film and assigns each timeline a different duration, but it generates a back-and-fill organization and clusters of replays reminiscent of The Killing.

Burt Lancaster is considered here, and why not?

Ocean’s Eight (2018).

October 11 2017

REINVENTING HOLLYWOOD: Post-partum downs and ups

The Human Comedy (1943).

DB here:

Some authors think that once their book is published they can lean back and wait to hear what people think. On the contrary. Sometimes the care and maintenance of your book continues well after the publication date.

For one book I did, the university press had promised to run an ad in Film Quarterly. When no ad appeared, I was told that since the press itself published Film Quarterly, it had to yield space to publishers who actually paid for their ads. On a more memorable occasion, a catalog listing the season’s titles from Harvard ran a picture of me that showed a different guy. Someone had chosen a shot of the distinguished literary critic and political commentator David Bromwich, who’s regrettably better looking than me.

Most recently, I just learned that Harvard has put my On the History of Film Style out of print. (Snif.) I was a favorite of mine, and over its twenty years it sold decently, over 10,000 copies. But with all those stills it’s an expensive book to reprint, and so the rights have reverted to me. I hope to revive it somehow, perhaps in print as I did with the Harvard orphan The Cinema of Eisenstein, kindly picked up by Bill Germano, then of Routledge.  Or I might go the digital route, creating a straight-up pdf of the old version (as happened with Kristin’s Exporting Entertainment), or something fancier, as with the 2.0 edition of Planet Hong Kong (another book Harvard discharged). Today we Dr. Frankenstein authors have a lot of ways to jolt our creatures back to life.

There are still used copies of On the History…. on Amazon. This is a Good Thing. Still, the Age of Amazon creates other post-partum problems.

In conversation and email, I’ve been hearing from people about the Big Cahuna’s treatment of my 40s book. At first Amazon promised to ship copies on the publication date, 2 October (although the University of Chicago Press was shipping copies a week or so before). Nothing happened. Then Amazon third-party sellers offered copies pronto at $30, $10 less than cover price. Then Amazon joined the fray by offering copies at $32 with Prime membership, thereby undercutting those outlets charging for shipping. This is dynamic pricing in fast motion. Such fluctuating pricing by Leviathan’s algorithms must drive publishers crazy.

Still with me? Those other outlets sold their copies, leaving Amazon the sole vendor. The price went back up to list, $40. For the last ten days Amazon has claimed that the book is out of stock, with no shipping date yet determined. This morning, the algorithm declared that one copy was available, but more were coming soon. Sure enough, as I sat down to write this entry, Amazon was offering copies, with Prime, at $40.

But I just checked again and–Amazon has just reverted to competing with third-party vendors offering it between $26 and $41. Who’s the nervy profiteer who charges a dollar above list?

So hurry! These prices won’t last long! (Of that you can be sure.) If you want stability and fast delivery at the original price, you can go to the University of Chicago site.

I know, I know: First-world problems. So let me end by thanking two critics for their generous reviews, newly hatched. Both understood that I was aiming for a broad scope, trying to stress the breadth of storytelling innovation of the period. Given that emphasis, in Film Comment, Nick Pinkerton understood why I inserted interludes on particular films and filmmakers:

Tony Rayns in Sight & Sound rightly saw the book as trying to do something different from auteur studies, but he too got that the Interludes tried to right the balance by going deep on particular classics and directors.

Tony is right about the book’s giving Menzies short shrift, but I’ve devoted some attention to him elsewhere (here and here). Blogging has been a good way to offload material that I decided to keep out of the book. Likewise, maintaining this site allows me to post clips of 40s films I talk about. Feel free to check them out.

I thank these reviewers, and any of this blog’s readers who have bought the book.

Next up, and for free: One last big job.

Neither Nick’s nor Tony’s review is online, as far as I know.

As usual, I owe massive thanks to Rodney Powell, Melinda Kennedy, and Kelly Finefrock-Creed. They and their colleagues have made the production, and post-production, of this book exceptionally un-traumatic.

For more background on my Forties research, see the category 1940s Hollywood. I commemorate the day I shipped out the damn thing here. No, I don’t blog in my pajamas, but I do sleep in my clothes.

The Curse of the Cat People (1944).

Carol Salter Introduces "Almost Heaven"

Carol Salter's Almost Heaven (2017) is playing October 9 - November 8, 2017 on MUBI in the United Kingdom.Almost Heaven
When making my films I start off with an emotion or a feeling, which transforms into an idea that mirrors the initial feeling. I was dealing with my own fear of death and coming to terms with the inevitable loss of my aging parents.
The starting point was a short newspaper article about the work of young morticians in China, who perform special spa treatments on the deceased. These young people gave respect to the deceased by cleansing and washing away their ills and pains. I was intrigued as to how such young people, at the beginning of their life, could cope with working in such a place and so closely to death.
I met with a number of young morticians while filming, but there was something about Ying Ling that drew me to her and I chose to follow her journey.  She was innocent, quirky and as fearful of being a part of this environment as I was. What is more, both Ying Ling and myself had never seen a dead body before.
As I filmed her, I felt we were both venturing out on a journey toward facing our mutual fears around death. Ying Ling was finding her own sense of independence in the adult world, and I felt better able to deal with the necessary ‘letting go’ of my parents’ passing. In a way, Almost Heaven is a film defined by two journeys and the bond that emerges from them—both of us were going through our own rites to passage.
I’m drawn to working in a country where I don’t speak or understand the spoken language. I don’t speak Mandarin and do not ask my translator to translate while I am shooting.  This allows my instinctive feeling to drive what might be meaningful within a scene. Being a self-shooter and using very little equipment has enabled me to be more reactive to the moments that are unfolding in front of me, capturing them with greater immediacy. This also helps me, I think, to establish greater intimacy with the people I film, enabling me to pick out small details that speak of the tenderness or brutality of a moment. I am always searching for the energy in any given scene, a voice been raised, a whisper, someone’s look. 
I’m interested in a simplicity of storytelling. Perhaps due to my background as an editor, I find the subtraction of storytelling to be as important as what you put in. Almost Heaven is a film that is shaped by a young woman’s sense of alienation and how she gradually learns to overcome this. Perhaps this approximates the empathy I myself have towards the people I film. I care about them and there is a trust in that empathy that (hopefully) translates to screen.

Recrudescence - table of contents

Serge Daney's fourth and last book (published during his lifetime) is Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à mains, cinéma, télévision, information. The title is a somewhat mysterious reference to a notice put up in a film theatre warning that 'Due to the increase in handbag thefts in public spaces, we advise our customers to remain vigilant and not place handbags on the floor'.

It brings together a selection of articles from two columns that Daney wrote for the French newspaper Libération (between October 1988 and April 1991) and a lengthy interview with Philippe Roger conducted in January 1991.

Over the years, many of the texts have been translated, especially with the 30 texts published recently on this blog for the Ghosts of Permanence series. So here's the entire table of contents of the book with links to translations (and the film reference where relevant).

GHOSTS OF PERMANENCE - from cinema to television

What Out of Africa produces
(Out of Africa, Syndey Pollack, 1986)

Les Baccantes mises à nu 
(Ah! The Nice Moustache or Peek-a-Boo, Jean Loubignac, 1954)

Three years after the Dragon 
(Year of the Dragon, Michael Cimino, 1985)

The Pirate isn't just decor
(The Pirate, Vincente Minnelli, 1948)

(Marie-Antoinette, W.S. Van Dyke, 1938)

Stella, ethics and existence 
(Stella, Laurent Heynemann, 1983)

Cop in a box
(Un flic, Jean-Pierre Melville, 1982)

Minnelli caught in his web
(Cobweb, Vincente Minnnelli, 1955)

That's cinema
(Witness, Peter Weir, 1985)

The last temptation of the first Rambo 
(First Blood, Ted Kotcheff, 1982)

‘Wings’ to attempt to land
(Wings of desire, Wim Wenders, 1987)

Archimède's TV drama
(Archimède le clochard, Gilles Grangier, 1959)

Le Diable, maître du scénario
(Beauty and the Devil, René Clair, 1949)

Griffith shows us a thing or two
(Orphans of the Storm, D.W. Griffith, 1921)

The star and the leftovers
(And God Created Woman, Roger Vadim, 1956)

Zurlini, the stylist
(Violent Summer, Valerio Zurlini, 1959)

Un bon Lelouch ? Oui.
(Love is a funny thing, Claude Lelouch, 1969)

John Ford for ever
(She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, John Ford, 1950)

Qui aime Maurice Cloche?
(Rooster Heart, Maurice Cloche, 1946)

Beineix, Opus 1
(Diva, Jean-Jacques Beinex, 1981)

Mad Max, Opus 2
(Mad Max 2, George Miller, 1981)

A true fake Bruce
(Game of Death, Bruce Lee - Robert Clouse, 1972)

Clair, grandad of the music video
(Bastille Day, René Clair, 1933)

The essential Buñuel
(That Obscure Object of Desire, Luis Buñuel, 1977)

Leone at war
(The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Sergio Leone, 1968)

Rossellini, Louis XIV: the first
(The Taking of Power by Louis XIV, Roberto Rossellini, 1966)

Zurlini, from the back
(Family Portrait, Valerio Zurlini, 1962)

Un Verneuil sans espoir
(La vingt-cinquième heure, Henri Verneuil, 1967)

Alien: come what may
(Alien, Ridley Scott, 1979)

Le roi était nu
(The King, Pierre Colombier, 1936)

Doped up Marilyn
(Let's Make Love, George Cukor, 1960)

Deadly dubbing
(Death Trap, Syndney Lumet, 1982)

Lara inn-keeper
(The Red Inn, Claude Autant-Lara, 1951)

Inusables cigognes
(The cranes are flying, Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957)

Downstairs, étude
(Downstairs, Monta bell, 1932)

Zefirelli, tchi tchi
(La Traviata, Franco Zeffirelli, 1982)

Realist Fellini (Ginger and Fred, Federico Fellini, 1986)

In the water
(Island of the Fishmen, Sergio Martino, 1979)

Laura's aura
(Laura, Otto Preminger, 1944)

Heavens, a telefilm!
(Silas Marner, Giles Foster, 2985)

Sissi impératrice
(Sissi, the Young Empress, Ernst Marischka, 1956)

Citizen Cain
(Citizen Kane, Orson Welles, 1941)

The Dumbo case
(Dumbo, Walt Disney production, 1941)

Illegal history
(Moonlighting, Jerzy Skolimowski, 1983)

Walsh draws kings
(The King and four Queens, Raoul Walsh, 1956)

La vie est un Donge
(The Truth about Bebe Donge, Henri Decoin, 1952)

Sink the Herring!
(Sink the Bismarck!, Lewis Gilbert, 1960)

A touch of Hell
(Inferno, Dario Argento, 1986)

Colourful DeMille
(The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. DeMille, 1956)

Liliom's arms
(Liliom, Fritz Lang, 1934)


Interview with Philippe Roger

INFORMATION FANTASIES - from information to war

Les loges des intellectuels

For a cine-demography

Moment critique pour la critique

Autant-Lara n'est (vraiment) pas une merveille

Quand le rythme vient à manquer

Catéchisme audio-visuel

Le cinéma et la mémoire de l'eau

l'"Amour en France", et nous et nous et nous

Nicolae et Elena lèguent leurs corps à la télé

In stubborn praise of information

Le tour de l'info en voiture-balai

Uranus, mourning for mourning

Beauté du téléphone

Montage obligatory

October 10 2017

Denver Film Festival - The Line-up


Are film festivals archaic? In the forty years since the first Denver Film Festival, movie going and movie making has changed. Back in 1977, home video was still relatively new, pre-recorded tapes of the handful of films available were expensive, and if you wanted to see film of some importance, it was seen in a theatrical run, or if you lived in a major city, at a film festival. We're now at a point when something called a film or movie is more often than not a series of digital images, rather than celluloid, and there is less reason to leave the house when classics, foreign language films, and mainstream Hollywood product are available through internet connected devices. And yet, there is still the allure of seeing that buzzed about title before everyone else, or making a "discovery" of some work that cherished, while generally ignored by the crowds and the critics. For myself, it's nice to get a note of thanks from an independent filmmaker who wants to give you credit for helping his film make the transition from festival favorite to a DVD sale.

The big titles at this year's Denver Film Festival include all three "People's Choice" films from Toronto, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Molly's Game and I, Tonya. The festival kicks off with Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird.

Several entries for the foreign language film Oscar will be presented, including Fatih Akin's In the Fade and Joachim Trier's Thelma, among the filmmakers I like to keep current with. I'm also hoping to catch new films by Sally Potter (The Party), and Naomi Kawase (Radiance).

Danish Cinema is also to be featured, with films by newer filmmakers who haven't yet moved over to English language productions, unlike what seems like every Dogme 95 member. For reasons unknown to me, the most famous (infamous?) living Danish filmmaker, Lars Von Trier, is included, represented by his English language Breaking the Waves. I would have programmed the Danish language The Five Obstructions because the film features Von Trier and his mentor, Jorgen Leth. This year marks Leth's 80th birthday, as well as the fifties anniversary of Leth's short, "The Perfect Human", which Leth remade with Von Trier's impossible conditions. Plus, The Five Obstructions is deliberately quite funny.

While some films that have been on the film festival circuit aren't included, there are enough films that I want to see as part of the festival, with the knowledge that several others that aren't included here will be likely be seen in their home video versions soon enough. The full list is here. What I cover, as in years past, will just be a select group from the 200 or so titles available.


A Ghost Story: Close-Up on Carol Salter's "Almost Heaven"

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Carol Salter's Almost Heaven (2017) is playing October 9 - November 8, 2017 on MUBI in the United Kingdom.
“The mosquitos are extra toxic here. Maybe they’ve bitten the dead bodies.”
—Jin, Almost Heaven
 “I washed away your illness and pain. I wish you a good journey.”
—Ying, Almost Heaven 
It was by coincidence that I saw Almost Heaven and the new Blade Runner days apart. They’re worlds apart, to be clear. Denis Villeneuve’s $150 million-plus sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 Philip K. Dick adaptation is a big, bold film whose sense of melancholy and intimacy is embedded into its massive scale and haunting imagery—imagery which has, as a welcome refresher on what an audiovisual art form is meant to do, continued to move me a week later. Carol Salter’s documentary, about trainee undertakers in China, clocks in—by contrast­—at just longer than an hour, its observational mode scarcely registering a sense of design or scope.
But the two films, positioned at opposite ends of the budgetary spectrum, share some themes. Villeneuve’s picture riffs on what it means to be: sentience as both blessing (the innate miracle of life) and curse (exploitative, uncertain, cruelly finite). I thought back to the mournful interplay of these meditations, to the finality with which it renders an organism’s termination, when in Salter’s film a grieving woman reads aloud at a loved one’s funeral: “Separation by death is an inescapable part of life. Life is too short not to be cherished.” This is just the kind of quote-a-day truism in which grief finds popular expression, and yet it’s moving precisely because of its relatability, its simplicity—its implicit acknowledgement that life is, in light of its limited timespan, reducible to simultaneously miraculous and meaningless moments.
Salter’s mise en scène is less designed than found. To begin with, she confines herself to a succession of tripod-fixed compositions showing the sparsely-populated, bunker-like corridors of what appears to be a basement within the concrete-beige vicinity of the Ming Yang Mountain Funeral Home. It’s here, in Changsha, the capital of China’s Hunan province, where 17-year-old Ying Ling has arrived to undergo an apprenticeship as a mortician. As an opening inscription informs us, China provides few employment opportunities to young people; as a consequence, they must travel great distances to find work. Salter’s is a document of such displacement. And alienation: prompted by the above-mentioned funeral speech, Ying makes a phone call, laughing with embarrassment. “I want to be closer to you before it’s too late.”
Ying is isolated geographically. When she calls home, Salter films her from afar, framing her as a single figure in an empty room; unable to hear the other end of the line, the director encapsulates her subject’s sense of loneliness, of one-way communication. Ying’s request for a dispatch of winter clothes is denied on the grounds of cost. In another scene, Ying’s mentor, Jin Hau (a boy whose own youthful appearance prompts incredulity even from Ying), asks: “Can your parents help you find a new job?” Ying shakes her head.
In other moments, Salter emphasizes the repetitive, practice-makes-perfect(ion) nature of the job. The director takes her protagonist’s training procedure as the film’s structuring device, underscoring the cyclical performativity through which labor is developed, routinized and sold: preparing for an exam, she starts on mannequins before rehearsing on actors playing dead. The actual dead follow. Salter focuses, for large sections of her film, on periods of downtime; it’s as if Ying is being filmed backstage, in a green room—especially in scenes with Jin—which reinforces the idea of labor as a performance, as something alien from one’s natural disposition. “You should put emotion into it,” one supervisor suggests with regard to massaging a corpse.
Ying and Jin enjoy a chemistry that runs deeper than their teacher-apprentice relationship, and Salter’s film feels at its most intimate and focused when the director shoots their interactions, both in handheld close-up and in wider establishing shots, such as when they dine in a fast food joint outside of work hours. When Ying asks the web browser on her phone what to do if one is scared of ghosts, we sense she’s secretly asking Jin (who is happy to indulge her fear, exaggerated or otherwise). Scenes such as this play out in contrast to the more respectful distance with which Salter shoots client families, who have come to the funeral home to pay their final respects. Death as transaction: one group of relatives, cheeks still wet, is told they must pay for the service before the deceased can be cremated.
In Salter’s previously mentioned introductory sequence—of empty hallways, of non-spaces devoid of human presence—I was reminded of the penultimate scene in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century (2006), in which we move through a number of similarly and seemingly abandoned spaces inside a hospital, before the camera tracks and tilts its way to a close-up on a ventilation duct. Apichatpong’s sequence concludes a film already infused with an appreciably spiritual ambience, and is itself a suggestive, eerie arrangement of image-sound combinations. Salter’s sequence ends with an equally surreal but more quietly ghoulish image: that of a distinctly colorless corpse being lowered, face-up, on a scissor-lift.
At the end of his film, after that weird descent into something nonhuman and mechanical, Apichatpong cuts abruptly to a public park, and to a group of people energetically partaking in aerobics. Life, that ineluctable mode of being, goes on. At the end of Almost Heaven, Ying moves provinces, to Sichuan, to take up studies at a nursing school in Nanchong. More mannequins, but this time, with heart massages and CPR. Then a cut-to-black: life unfolds until it doesn’t. End credits provide suitable room to ponder this switch, before Salter adds a poetic endnote. All those heads, those students, the endless white uniforms, ascending and descending steps. We have transitioned from the individual to wide shots of a crowd: movement beyond the fixed frame, the finite timespan.

October 09 2017

Review: Interred with Their Bones—Denis Villeneuve's "Blade Runner 2049"

Blade Runner 2049
There’s a nagging question at the heart of Denis Villenueve’s Blade Runner 2049, and it’s to do with need. Why does Ryan Gosling’s Detective K need a robot wife (Ana de Armas), programmed to speak in a diaphanous lisp? Why does he need an apartment? What purpose is there for a robot to blend in? Everyone in his world can almost smell his oiled gears, his falseness. So why does he need the trappings of reality? Like Twin Peaks: The Return, Blade Runner 2049 has to interrogate its own incongruous existence so many years after the artifact that gave it life first entered the cultural bloodstream. Why does this film exist, beyond the potential box office? Why have writer Hampton Fancher and producer Ridley Scott gone back here? Who needs this? The film seems aware of itself as an automaton theatrical event. It watches itself; taking place behind glass, windows, bodies of water, memories, windshields, holograms, cameras, audio recordings and in the eyes of replicants. It seems designed to watch itself even if no one showed up, like a rotating hall of mirrors. The film doesn’t need us. The sterility and unfussiness of the edit, the smoothness with which each of its tableaux move, like an iPhone slideshow, as if it were constantly admiring itself in an empty gallery. The film shouldn’t be smooth and clean, so manicured. It should have rough edges, but even the blood-matted hair is gorgeous. What is there to learn from abject pulchritude?
This film is best understood as an echo of what happened to the Alien films. After all, it takes most of its visual cues from David Fincher’s Alien3. Like that film, its dystopia is one of empty basements and lost purpose, of harried men in big cloaks spinning in government-designed hamster wheels waiting for divine purpose to come claim them. The orphanage is right out of Fincher’s prison planet, as are the blood orange skies and the silhouette of its lonely hero pondering life’s mysteries during a walk down a soot-blown beach. The film is a silhouette of other films, bits of Jean-Pierre Melville without the firm existential underpinning, loads of Ridley Scott.  When Scott came back to Alien with Prometheus the script threw acres of meaningless incident down so that Scott could try to understand himself better. He was investigating himself as an entertainer and Hollywood court painter. He shows one of his surrogates, the android David, reading the dreams of his charges during their long flight to space. This is what Scott’s been trying to do his whole career—read people’s desires and give them the mass entertainments they crave while also expressing his artistic purpose. It hasn’t always worked. Alien: Covenant doubles down on the dark creation myth Scott wove himself, splitting its runtime between a headlong gallop towards a slasher-movie bloodbath and a stroll through the dank basement of his imagination. He asks whether his art is worth what followed.
Movies still look like Blade Runner. “There’s no need for eighties nostalgia – because…the eighties never ended,” wrote Richard Brody on Die Hard a few weeks ago. It’s true that we’ve been stuck in a Möbius strip of its images, properties and ideas. Our President even seems like a bloated, waterlogged zombie of all of its worst excesses. Film Grammar in the U.S. very rarely makes strides past what Scott made a household form during that decade. Between Blade Runner’s chic garbage-strewn wasteland L.A., Someone To Watch Over Me’s ivory tower Manhattan and Tony Scott’s The Hunger and Top Gun weaponizing femininity and masculinity, respectively, there isn’t much we don’t owe the Scott brothers. Returning to Alien and Blade Runner seems only natural but completely superfluous. Every third blockbuster is already Blade Runner (Dunkirk, Ghost In The Shell, War for the Planet of the Apes, John Wick 2, Logan, Valerian), Top Gun (Baby Driver, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Fate of the Furious, Transformers: The Last Knight, The Mummy, Kong: Skull Island)or both. Scott was taking stock of his legacy. What’s Villeneuve’s excuse?  
Alien: Covenant is the more interesting artifact of nostalgia because its backward glances are an excuse for Scott to understand his obsessions and his place in the universe, especially as he nears his 80th birthday. Scott takes obvious joy making images and slaughtering hot people with the verve of a much younger man. After all, he never got to sew his wild oats, so to speak: he was too busy being an artist. In all of Scott’s early work, there’s talk of sex, even heavy suggestion of sex, but it’s tasteful or nightmarish, all metaphor. The alien piercing skulls, Tom Berenger and Mimi Rogers having music video-tame carnal congress, even the earth-shattering orgasm of Thelma and Louise is done with an eye towards Brad Pitt’s Adonis-like form rather than really reveling in two bodies touching. Blade Runner is wild and kinky and sweaty and dirty, but he was breaking new ground, rewriting The Big Sleep in color, neon and fog. He never got to make movies the way his brother did. Tony had an artist’s visual sense, but he wasn’t afraid of genre or silliness, of pitting the naked forms of Susan Saradon and Catherine Deneueve against one another, or of watching Tom Cruise roger his way across the late 80s in heavy shadow or silky soft light. Ridley seemed afraid of sex for so long, and all his violence was symbolic, tragic and for the most part, slow. When you pair it with Blade Runner 2049, Alien: Covenant’s relative purposefulness is staggering. It goes somewhere in a great big hurry. Blade Runner 2049 circles around itself, eyeing its own hollow existence like Gosling looking at his translucent robot wife, never properly asking what its purpose is. The film is an exercise in collapsed time, like shuffling through decks of old trading cards as the childhood memories associated with them come flooding back. It simply extends the memories associated with the artifacts without doing anything new with the images.  
Well…maybe that’s unfair. There’s a love scene that feels genuinely new, the kind of thing Alain Resnais might have come up with if he’d been given a few more years on earth. Villeneuve is quite clearly a Resnais fan, having borrowed the structure of Arrival from Je t’aime je t’aime. If making films at this budget means getting to see a handful of ideas from the old master’s playbook fleshed out, then I don’t mind him making inconsequential films. The scene in question is also a self-reflexive comment, which makes it quizzically impressive. Mackenzie Davis’ guerilla street walker lets de Armas’ program/wife surrogate step into her figure and merge with her so that they can present a flesh and blood woman for Gosling to enjoy. The scene is the only time the movie lets its emotions runneth over, allowing us to ponder whether Gosling can feel anything (for a movie with oodles of fake blood, it’s rather anemic). And it’s also the whole movie in a single, more efficient scene. Every few minutes it introduces characters who look and feel like the old cast (Davis is purposefully styled after Daryl Hannah, Gosling after Ford, Sylvia Hoeks after Sean Young).  Villeneuve banks on the charge of the familiar, even as he attempts and frequently achieves novel images and sounds all around them. An agreeably schizophrenic color palette washing over everything, water pouring out of great dams, a 50-foot neon woman flirting with a bruised and battered Gosling, a snow covered incubator for a damaged inventor. The film is visually and aurally fun even if the tone is relentlessly downbeat and miserable. Directors can’t help but turn on the sadness whenever they get their mitts on Gosling’s perfect face. Gosling is good in the film. Almost everyone is. Davis especially is a livewire, crackling through her few short scenes. Bautista, Hoeks, Armas: these are all performers who shake with momentum, they move the film even if the frame is still. Hoeks’ taut visage crying instead of cracking as she murders her way through a mystery is consistently compelling. The film is not without excellent soloists, it’s just the symphony that needed another revision. 
The love scene troublingly mirrors one in Spike Jonze Her when Scarlett Johansson’s sentient computer program hires a woman to stand in for her so Joaquin Phoenix’s clingy nerd can sleep with a woman instead of masturbating to a voice. Both films never question why a program would ever want to be human—Colossus: The Forbin Project put the lie to that almost fifty years ago. Humans are a pestilence, why would robots aspire to be like them? Dave Bautista’s renegade medic seems to love and respect what humans are capable of, which makes sense from a programming standpoint—program the fear of god into your work force, which is exactly what white Christians did. But when we meet this former slave in the first act of the movie, he’s still going through the motions of his old career, while safeguarding the bones of the mother of humanity’s supposed savior? That’s not a metaphor, that’s genuinely what he’s up to. The framework here is self-serving: the object (bones, the original movie) must be seen as holy and worth protecting, or none of the effort to extend and ostensibly protect its legacy will seem worth it. Why return to Blade Runner? Because the change it instilled in film grammar has to have been worth it. Blade Runner has to be sacred, or what is film culture in its wake? What use will have been our clinging to the decade and its aesthetic principles? What was it all for? 

Pain Pays the Income of Each Precious Thing: Stanley Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon"

“For an intellectual product of any value to exert an immediate influence which shall also be deep and lasting, it must rest on an inner harmony, yes, an affinity, between the personal destiny of its author and that of his contemporaries in general.”
—Thomas Mann, Death in Venice 
Barry Lyndon. I can’t believe there was a time when I didn’t know that name. Barry Lyndon means an artwork both grand and glum. Sadness inconsolable. A cello bends out a lurid sound, staining the air before a piano droopingly follows in the third movement of Vivaldi's “Cello Concerto in E Minor.” This piece, which dominates the second half of the film, steers the hallowed half of my head to bask in the film’s high melancholic temperature. Why should I so often remember it? What did I have to do with this film? I only received it with a steady swallow owing to its three-hour running time, Stanley Kubrick’s longest. What makes Barry Lyndon my own story? Have I lived to subsume it or have I subsumed it to live?
As the Criterion Collection has seen fit to release a new restoration (it is the first of Kubrick's five Warner Bros. films to get such treatment), isn't it time to ask if style and content are more inextricably wound in Barry Lyndon than in any other Kubrickian enterprise? What is Barry Lyndon if not the incredible research and work behind it by Kubrick—as well as by art directors, cameramen and operators, costume designers, technicians, musicians, historians, research assistants, and actors. The yield? It would be photographed (super-fast lenses Kubrick obtained from NASA captured the candlelit scenes) in a certain way (300 days of shooting) and what would be photographed would be the correct images: at the best time of day, in the best locations, with the best costumes on the best people, with the best words flying out of their mouths and the best expressions painted on their faces (albeit through a chaos of sorts, as Kubrick reworked the script nearly every day and, according to a recent interview with production designer Ken Adam, Kubrick shut down the production for six weeks in order to reassess, an unconscionable development in major film production, something he did to a certain extent on the following final three films that only made them better). Which people does the Earl of Wendover (the man Barry leans on for help in obtaining a title) represent? He says:
My friends are the best people. Oh, I don’t mean that they are most virtuous, or indeed the least virtuous, or the cleverest, or the stupidest, or the richest, or the best born, but the best. In a word—people about whom there is no question.
One brief scene (all one shot) frequently comes to me unbidden, more than any other. Barry sits in a boat with his son fishing. Sunned by the light of the British Isles, they lifelessly hold their rods, as a dog sits frozen in the bow, for the duration of the 30-second shot. It is one of the patented reverse-zooms that make up Barry Lyndon, though this one begins in the act of roaming, not starting on a fixed point. Nothing moves except the camera and the small stream they barely float on as the Vivaldi plays over their ennui in the aftermath of Lord Bullington (Lady Lyndon’s son and Barry’s step-son) leaving Castle Hackton following Barry’s brutal public beating of him; upstart behavior outcasting Barry from the high circles he once courted. It is one of the countless quiet moments that make up life—a solemn durée where people realize nothing, they are just disconsolate while watching life pass by. Yet this 30 seconds over the course of three hours is a finite microcosm of Barry Lyndon. The downcast mood hold itself; perplexed, pinioned, and aghast at life, yet not blackening the vision which created it; wordlessly broadcasting despair, in creating a monument to it.
How complex the film released on the 18th of December, 1975 is—the last Kubrick film to have a winter release (his final three premiered in May, June, and July). It ended a year already crammed with Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Robert Altman’s Nashville, Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger, Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, Arthur Penn’s Night Moves, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, and Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror. Why this continual hankering after Barry Lyndon? This epic downer of celluloid casts its perspicacious glow and I easily roll over to be scratched. Still, it has quiet doses of Kubrick’s dark, droll humor as person after person is deceived, insulted, purloined, and made to seem quite backward even if they hold high societal positions.
Kubrick adapted a pre-Victorian 1844 novel for the screen, penned by the author of Vanity Fair (the more popular skewering of English society). In William Makepeace Thackeray’s book, Barry narrates his story and it is called The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon Esquire (first issued as The Luck of Barry Lyndon). Kubrick sifted and rearranged plot points in the prose and made an omniscient narrator. The narrator oversees and judges the actions of the scoundrel, putting the viewer at a seeming advantage in getting information, but at the narrator's (or Kubrick's) whims, as will be shown. This obliquity fuels Kubrick's approach, playing against the audience's prejudices, challenging them to identify with Barry, as with Alex, Jack, and Dr. Bill.
The debits and credits of so much of man’s inhumanity to man is portrayed with astounding opulence, but Barry Lyndon is a bunker-buster bomb for all ages, races, and genders. It won’t even allow its eventual victor to hide from its rigorous and unforgiving eye. Lord Bullington is whipped by Barry and beaten, but Bullington is a bit of an asshole as well, beating his half-brother Brian (the only other child to be released from his mother’s womb, but of Barry's Irish seed) because he can’t stand how his mother has been taken in by the “common opportunist,” as young Bullington calls him, and how their family fortune (and his) has been squandered. Everyone, except possibly Reverund Runt, is looking out for number one.
If my hankering knows its waist size, then it knows the object of the hanker is tragedy and the drama of a family created and destroyed with no key of sentimentality struck, not even when Barry’s young child Brian, head wrapped like a shell-shocked WWI soldier, lies on his deathbed in front of his powerless parents (who have steadily become removed from each other’s lives) and asks them with a mushy, wholly girlish voice-box to hold his hands and promise him “...never to quarrel so, but to love each other so that we may meet again in heaven. Lord Bullington said quarrelsome people will never go.” No, not even then.
Some years ago in Oregon, my friend (with whom I'd bonded over the film) and I “showed” Barry Lyndon to our relatively new girlfriends—a double date to test dexterity. Recently, after another “showing,” I was asked if I liked sad movies. I answered unequivocally. Yes. I know I experience life as, for the most part, a sad exercise, a dolorous bath with a great number of seemingly happy but humorless people who will only lean on another so to avoid a manic episode. To pretend we exist otherwise would amount to a patty-cake played when one is 40 and not drunk or in love. Of course there are joyful moments—watching waves, traveling, love, families that get along (in the end)—but as often, there is a tart jibe come from a caramelized envy or half-hidden hurt in one of our familiars, necessitating more sarcasm, but possibly creating pleasureless entropy. I’m just kidding, someone will say and we’ll often laugh it off, but I have dwelled some minutes on those harmless recriminations. They hurt. We hurt. People are in pain and no amount of brainwashing will have me handing in grand celebrations of sad for the crooked farce of the television sitcom and social media happy mask. There is joy in sadness, comedy in confusion, we live all sides of life—if there’s too little drama in our art, we say it’s not real enough and if too much, we say it depresses us, but as William H. Gass avers, “If tragedies weren’t tragic, no one would go to them.”
The only time I saw the film projected (not in DCP) was in 2006 at the Museum of Modern Art and in the first seconds following the end credits, an elderly woman bedecked in too much scent announced how the feature we had just seen was not her favorite Merchant Ivory picture. I didn’t realize then, but can now decry with more authority, how people may look for hours at images and generate such conversely different views on what they have seen, spouting a tired testament to their intimates that will either be aped or avoided on the walk to the restaurant after. To some, many movies look the same. The angles are similar, the light is nothing special, and when one anticipates a cut to see what a character is looking at, it is magically provided. The timing of Kubrick’s editing isn’t so disjunctive, at least here—it’s more what he chooses to display in the shots he cuts to that surprises and confounds. Why that shot then? Why the exact opposite view of Jack and Charles Grady in the red bathroom from one end to the other, breaking the unwritten 360 degree rule? Or the fascinating shot as Barry lies convalescing at an inn after having the lower half of his left leg amputated following the final duel. Graham, the chief financial advisor at Castle Hackton, comes to visit him and his grim mother, who sits by his side. Graham is winded from his walk up the stairs and enters the room, but Kubrick films this entry in a distinctive break from the style that has held the film for nearly three hours. Suddenly there is a subjective shot from Barry’s POV as he watches Graham pop into the room and sit down. It's only 19 seconds, but it's enough to disturb. The viewer responds internally, all thoughts in a flash: I don't know what, and, I may not know why, but it's exciting. Maybe it's the transfer of power, or essence, away from Barry. 
I can also understand this woman’s remark with a modicum of compassion, a grain of gold that has inchingly grown inside me during recent years, tallying more encounters with the cold and cruel as well as the joyful and ingratiating of our species. People talk in code, and if the listeners are affected, sometimes only those closest to their storm will be able to decipher the degree of forsaken emotion penetrating to the inside of their neo-numbed hearts. Some people delight in equivocation and will not admit pain in the groin to be that, but rather something happening to someone else. Some are already emotionally neutered and know not how to accept the art presented to them, but instead keep their hurricanes situated in their own well-fed and well-groomed cage—strengthening by squats and curls of bland, unaffectionate sentences about most everything but themselves. Barry Lyndon is not my favorite Merchant Ivory film, either.
While being a very serious and sad work of art, Barry Lyndon retains some substructure of a comedy of errors. The great heresy that describes life, seemingly survival of the fittest, is presented as a ping-pong game of lies, theft, and cover-up. It starts in the film's second scene, revealing Barry's infatuation with his cousin Nora, who hides a ribbon on her person for him to find. Barry seems to know the ribbon is in his cousin’s bosom, but will not search there and says he can't find it. She calls him a liar after she shows him where it is and he then trembles, “at the joy of finding the ribbon.” Then to the deceiving of Captain Quinn by Nora as well as their duel itself, where Barry’s bullets don’t kill, though Quinn is reported dead. Then the deception by the thieving father and son, as Barry is robbed of his horse and money after trying to escape the Quinn business. Soon he joins the British army, serves in the Seven Years' War, and then deserts by stealing papers and pretending to be a British officer, sleeping with a fetching, lonely German war bride on his travels. After Prussian Captain Potzdorf calls him out, he serves in the Prussian army and then begins the imposture of his serving as a spy for Potzdorf and the Minister of Police. He, in turn, lies to them about their programmed spying into the Chevalier’s life because of feeling compassion for this fellow Irishman. The Chevalier devises a plan and Barry dresses up as him to get out of Prussia. There follows the deceit and cheating that he and the Chevalier employ at the card tables in Europe. All of this is before the one hour and thirty-minute mark where Barry espies Lady Lyndon and the rest of his life is fated.
Similar to Eyes Wide Shut in its incredible odyssey of encounters, Barry Lyndon could have been played all for laughs, but in both cases Kubrick retains mostly melodrama in his case against humanity. Still, one can’t help but chuckle at Barry’s bilious statement about the paintings he might buy with his new wife’s money, when he has no artistic appreciation about him: “I love the painter’s use of the color blue.” Or when Sir Charles Lyndon, the sick, soon to be deceased husband of Lady Lyndon, caterwauls, “Come, come sir, I’m a man who would rather be known as a cuckold than a fool,” while trying to stand up to Barry in front of the former's card-playing friends. These card tables are the same that pave the road for Barry to assume the title of Barry Lyndon, and the same kinds his wife seeks refuge in when they first meet, and later, when her new husband plunges into the skin of other women he (with her money) finds refuge in.
In Barry Lyndon, the comic touches up against the cruel again and again, so much so that we know we are in a world as real and unforgiving as the one outside the spectacle of the screen—a chilly place where on the way to the parking lot after the show, a young man will rush to give you the glove you’ve dropped, but an old man in an idling car will lay on the horn and What the fuck? you out of the parking space that you and the do-gooder are blocking by standing face to face, happy, reunited with your glove.
This is another version of the Kubrickian pathos where the world is webbed by desire for money, flesh, war, wargames, and other conquering excursions, including ultraviolence. With all the conniving dominating Barry’s early life, is it a surprise he expands his chest like a pigeon to gain the affection of Lady Lyndon? Just before he meets her, the narrator, Michael Harridan, proudly confides that,  
Five years in the army and some considerable experience of the world had by now dispelled any of those romantic notions regarding love with which Barry commenced life, and he began to have it in mind, as so many gentlemen before him, to marry a woman of fortune and condition...
and thereafter follows the storied wordless seduction at the card table consummated outside after Lady Lyndon announces she will have a breath of air in order for Barry to follow and fetch. As Kubrick himself states in an interview with Michael Ciment,  
They gaze longingly into each other's eyes and kiss. Still not a word is spoken. It's very romantic, but at the same time, I think it suggests the empty attraction they have for each other that is to disappear as quickly as it arose. It sets the stage for everything that is to follow in their relationship.
Aptly, in the middle of their first kiss, Kubrick cuts to them being rowed about in a miniature pleasure boat, a scene over which the narrator ironically says,  
To make a long story short, six hours after they met, her ladyship was in love, and once Barry got into her company he found innumerable occasions to improve his intimacy and was scarcely out of her ladyship’s sight.  
This shot, bridged by Schubert's indelible Piano Trio No. 2, bleeds over to them walking through the extravagant grounds at Spa in Belgium. Their courtship consists of the enjoyment and view of the most operative word in Barry Lyndon—property, of which Quinn blusters in the beginning, “I’m a man of property,” igniting poor Barry's fire to get the same. After these scenes the happiness of Barry and Lady Lyndon only consists of the few minutes during the wedding ceremony where Reverend Runt glares at Barry while saying marriage, 
is not in any way to be enterprised nor taken in hand unadvisedly, lightly or wantonly, to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites like brute beasts that have no understanding. 
Incredibly, in the next scene, the marriage enters its nadir, as the Vivaldi piece plays for the first time. While riding in the coach, Barry blows a lengthy stream of smoke into his wife’s face after she asks him not to. She coughs, but Barry kisses her quickly and tantalizingly, toying with someone he now has under his dominion—it is clear he will not respect her anymore for he now has what Captain Quinn did so many years ago to steal away his first love, property. 
Barry Lyndon
Money. Property. Prestige. Conquering. How else could Redmond Barry survive? Barry is probably Kubrick’s most complicated human subject. Barry cries, Barry kisses. He is fatuous in one scene and tender in the next. What made Kubrick fall for this character? Who did Kubrick see in this huckster? In one of the only books on him by someone who knew him personally over an extended period of time, Michael Herr, co-screenwriter on Full Metal Jacket, says in his book, Kubrick
I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t get extremely irritated, that I never thought he was a cheap prick, or that his lack of trust wasn’t sometimes obstructive and less than wholesome, that his demands and requirements weren’t just too much…don’t think just because you’ve known a few control freaks in your time that you can imagine what Stanley Kubrick was like.               
From “I like the artist’s use of the color blue,” while trying to hold up as someone aesthetically inclined when buying property that will garner him a “title,” to “You’re not going to die,” a directive to his soon to be dead son, Kubrick colors Barry into a man who hardly develops morally until it's too late. He only ages to survive—as many of Kubrick’s protagonists do.
Three distinct stages of man are on view in Barry Lyndon, from the shine of youth, to swindling adulthood, to the failure of old age—from life as gain, to life as loss. For each, Barry provides a face. Perceive how Ryan O’Neal appears in the first frames as a fresh, spry youngster, when his heart is broken by his cousin. Jilted by her wedding announcement, he looks on across the dining table, his anguished face suffused with the soft Irish sunlight. The close-up of O’Neal from a side angle is as reverent as it is magical—on par with the greatest portraiture, the understory of low light on his boyish features focuses our gaze at something simultaneously beautiful and sad. His blue eyes blank—pain has frozen his features in an unclean rictus. How long did it take O’Neal to summon this? How many takes were requested to tap into such wellsprings of hurt?
Flash then to just before the intermission. At Spa, Barry’s more angular adult face, the second, is powdered white, with his white wig knotted back and his lips repulsed from showing their obvious triumph by hiding in his mouth. With Barry's learning cues from the Chevalier, he grows more cunning. His sly smile toward sickly Lord Lyndon infuriates his lordship. Barry says, “I hope you're not thinking of leaving us so soon, Sir Charles?” but the latter guffaws about how he will not die so soon for his wife to get remarried, presumably to Barry. In closing, Barry says, “Sir, let those laugh that win,” and with Barry's luck, Sir Charles soon dies. The candlelight of the gallery warms and blurs the photography a tad—in the 18th Century, all wealthy people have a pallor about them. The rich have spoils, and the leisure to sit in these rooms, gambling away useless money, despoiling themselves and spoiling away in the process. Barry is already so sure of his attaining a “position” he simpers with pity, looking down on Sir Charles as if the old man were an ant.
And finally, the third face, after his son's death, is embittered Barry. With no makeup, he painfully, meekly gapes at his stepson in the salon and during the last duel, knowing he must avail himself in the face of Bullington’s call for satisfaction. His hair naturally grayed, his aged face impastoed with anguish, and deliberately sealed forever; his cunning or vigor never to return or to recover the gloss of its prior snakeskin, for he has had all the little he loved in life taken away. Like Jack at The Shining's end, Barry's ability to utilize language breaks down and he only says one word, “yes,” three times during the duel, his only verbal use following the death bed scene until he repeats the doctor's, “Lose the leg?”—some twenty minutes of screen time.
Kubrick's main theme is to track the descent of man. His later works (as well as earlier in Lolita) use the borrowed literary method of following one character from Alex in A Clockwork Orange, to Barry Lyndon, to Jack in The Shining, to Joker in Full Metal Jacket, to doctor Bill in Eyes Wide Shut and mapping their journeys through the madness of living. Yet, even with as much of Barry as is presented, he is also elusive. Because he hides from himself (understandably, as he can be barely said to know himself) Kubrick trots out the narrator, who reveals things before they happen, waxing over any narrative tension, so the audience is ever ahead of Barry, perhaps making it easier to view him compassionately because we are God compared to the Irishman. Still, even the narrator becomes insignificant. From the moment after Lady Lyndon's suicide attempt till the shot of one-legged Barry leaving the inn following the duel (some twenty minutes of film time), the narrator is silent, the drama of the impending duel reigns.
How are we to take such a man who destroys most everything he sees, yet dotes on his son, loving him with a “blind impartiality” as the narrator says. Is this selfishness in extremis? People speak of living for their children—they do, they must. If Barry’s only happiness was his child, who can argue that his concern for Brian was the most selfless act of his life? But didn’t he also carry his injured Uncle off the battlefield, as well as Captain Potzdorf, rescuing him from certain death by fire? Barry gets advanced for such heroism. But his hunger for all other kinds of advancement pervades the film and his marriage to Lady Lyndon is one long, lonely means to an end (the death of his son) he wouldn't have wanted or thought possible. Hence, tragic. Incredibly, Barry lands the fiercest malcontent’s greatest dream—he marries into a position where people will only serve him and his friendless existence will seem full because of money and property, but in truth it is more empty than before. His mother and his wife might have been his most intimate equals, but he quashes his wife and his mother is an awful role model, only negatively charging him, while speaking with a Lady Macbeth-like power-thirst during a quaggy interchange about his future:
You have not a penny of your own. Upon her death the entire estate would go to young Bullington, who bears you little affection. You could be penniless tomorrow and darling Brian at the mercy of his stepbrother…there is only one way for you and your son to have real security. You must obtain a title. I shall not rest until I see you Lord Lyndon. You have important friends. They can tell you how these things are done. For money, well-timed and properly applied can accomplish anything.
It is perhaps too simplistic to say Barry relates to Brian best because he is a child himself, but it is false to assay any more convenient reason.  
The death of Brian. Of the so many in Kubrick's cinema, this death is the most important, excepting maybe the destruction of the world in Dr. Strangelove. The death of others—Jack, HAL, Quilty—are called for, but this one goes against natural law. It’s the one not prepared for and, incredibly, it is not the deathbed scene where I steam up so much as the curious precursor—the scene where the narrator tells the audience ten minutes before it happens what is going to occur. Whatever joy we see Barry sharing with his son, while they page through a picture book or practice fencing, is truncated by the doomed words accompanying the shot showing Brian weakly swinging a croquet mallet as he is watched by Barry, his mother, Lady Lyndon, and the Reverend (with three dogs interspersed between them—the one in the middle, behind Brian, frolics), all in a balanced arrangement. A prideful film glazes their eyes, sight-lines joined in a large upside-down pyramidal composition. This shot is again a reverse zoom, starting on the mallet and pulling back to show Brian, then his family and the dogs (a reverse lineage, a three ages of man—the parents are just behind him and his grandmother is in the back), while the narrator delivers the keynote on mortality. Here are the most precious words on Barry’s tragedy (mostly transposed from Thackeray), for however much a crude deceiver he is, how can the audience begrudge him his coming torment:  
Barry had his faults, but no man could say of him that he was not a good and tender father. He loved his son with a blind impartiality, he denied him nothing. It is impossible to convey what high hopes he had for the boy and how he indulged in a thousand fond anticipations as to his future success and figure in the world. But fate had determined that he should leave none of his race behind him and that he should finish his life poor, lonely, and childless. 
Does God take away Brian? As the miniature coffin is wheeled off by the same small white carriage the same two sheep pulled on his birthday, the Reverend recites, echoing his marriage remarks in sternness, “We brought nothing into this world and it is certain we can carry nothing out. The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away. Blessed is the name of the Lord.” God exists in Barry Lyndon because England was a Protestant nation. What of fate? What of karma? Barry cheated his way to his position. It’s in keeping with the theme and action of the film that he should lose out as well. What is the history of Europe and the world outright? Enormous spills of blood over power, land, and money. Bloodsport, revenge. That Brian is killed by an insatiable need to enjoy his birthday present (a horse) and that he breaks his promise to Barry about going to the farm to see it (risking a “good whipping” from Barry) continues the great chain of deceitful reverberations in the plot. While Barry’s many indiscretions mostly advance him in society, he goes upward only enough to lose everything, including a leg. Brian’s deception leads to his death and, by extension, Barry's—freeze-framed out of any more life at the end. In Kubrick, what characters desire the most gets them in trouble, why else would he relish the myth of Icarus in his only publicly recorded speech after 1968, the acceptance of the 1997 Director's Guild of America Lifetime Achievement Award?
How can I speak to the pain of losing a child when, thankfully, I haven’t. Many would say “imagination,” a fictionmaker's bane. And others, in the philosophical vein, would aver, imagined pain is worse than real pain. Most people who watch Barry Lyndon have not lost children and they still feel—they gulp and sniffle at what could be. They see their mother and father before them as many might in dreams. Parents they do or did have, even if no children. Everyone exists at that triangle of parents and child at the death bed. Either people place themselves as the parents or child or both. No matter what Barry has done or is, the audience ignites on behalf of Brian and vicariously for Barry, as Kubrick surely knew they would; complicating the picture, asking us to delve into the dark of our hearts to try and explain this type of tragedy to ourselves. What makes identification with a film’s essence is the ability to place oneself in character, and by extension, in the very frames—those figments and figures that could be life. To live a work of art—the salty surrender to a form more knowing and final so these Bruegels, Bachs, and Becketts take our lusts and turn them dry—is to be informed enough to sense our time will come.
I feel pain beyond my means, my pity, and my years because Kubrick sought to create the kind of art that makes possible the deepest identifications in the human soul. I can speak to the pain of losing a child because Kubrick’s artifice wills it. “Pain pays the income of each precious thing,” says the Bard. I have seen myself and everyone else and their death by this sequence in Barry Lyndon—one consecrated vision flowing and flown.   
Because the strains of an unhappy family spread through Barry Lyndon in a more stately treatment than the pompous “Fuck you, mom!”s of most modern art, I was most excited to show the picture to my parents. I needed to connect with them, seeking their understanding of who I was at 18 years—a person invaded by and as indebted to Kubrick as a drowsy desperate lover. This first of his two films, The Shining next, with children playing a pivotal role, seduced me to try and find a connection with each by presenting this story first (the more sanitary of the two). Divorced, they would, separately, meet Kubrick for final approval.
My father fell asleep watching Barry Lyndon. My mother fell asleep watching Barry Lyndon. I fell asleep with my mother as we watched Barry Lyndon, leaving a family friend to fend for herself through Barry’s early army experiences. Abbas Kiarostami has said that, “I don’t like to arouse the viewer emotionally or give him advice…I prefer films that put the audience to sleep,” so I see no ill in letting oneself have Kubrick put one to bed. Out of the rambunctious, violent, or threateningly violent final five Kubrick films, Barry Lyndon is the most easeful, encouraging snoozing more than any other. My mother and father recovered after their early naps and did watch the rest—all the videoed celluloid down to the last wordless scene and the all-word epilogue. I don’t believe I could actively place my contumely with the world at age eighteen by citing a specific grievance or scenario of destruction wished for, but I believe what I autobiographically asked both my parents, via Kubrick, was, What if I were created by a marriage, as Brian was, between two people whose connection seemed a tad unwholesome? And what if that son died? Would it change your life if I were to die? How would it change? Was I wayward enough to believe that if they cried for Brian, they would cry for me? I was, but did I know how recriminations can make a piss taken in old age sting? Or how as the body breaks down and hopes and desires become scores that will never be settled, certain oblivion gets clearer? I believe I was aware enough to grok Kubrick wasn’t fucking around—that real life, however candy-colored or shit-scented, did at some base though dream-like level resemble the world of Kubrick. That’s why some of my elders with little aesthetic appreciation about them spoke of his work in hushed tones, and why people still continually watch the films, repeat the lines, and pay tribute in myriad other forms of imitation and affection. Kubrick speaks across the spectrum. The film gave my parents pause, at least enough to satisfy my longing that they demonstrate feeling at the sight of tragedy, and maybe, by extension, at the sight of love. Love of which object? Art, creator of art, or emissary of art? Kubrick had the mass appeal I needed to entreat the two most important people in my life, whose divorce triggered an impluse to blame myself for the vagaries of life. If we could could connect through Barry Lyndon, I thought we could share whatever else life had in store for us.
We did quietly connect over Barry Lyndon, but my greatest malfunction was thinking this would improve each of our relationships. We interacted in a zone of pushing and pulling emotional baggage, the driving force in Kubrick's universe. The mirror disturbed and gave us a basis for unearthing, but love can leak out far from stimulus. If it comes from the heart, it's a maudlin intimacy. If it comes from the mind, it's a cold rational gel. The charge and its after-expression is in the background of the painting or the frame, the white space of the page. Art can only go so far, it can inspire, but it isn’t the change itself—the human being has to take the art and make the next step by him or herself.
And what of that epilogue? What does it speak to? All that was Rococo at the time of Barry Lyndon's setting (1750's-1789) does, finally, not come through and for good reason. Schubert’s music is from the 19th Century, Vivaldi the 16th. It might be 18th Century Europe, but the emotions and behaviors are all centuries, specifically the world of the early to mid 1970s. Why all the deceit? As Kubrick prepared the screenplay and film, the story of Watergate broke. Was this calumny transposed so easily onto another space and time which simply contained all the excesses and sour-faced problems of any other without the benefits of the industrial revolution? As some historians argue that books of history are more about the time they were written in than the time described, so it seems any artistic piece about another age is destined to be marooned amidst the era it was conceived. In Thackeray’s novel, what becomes the epilogue is featured early on, as a commentary by Barry himself about the early troubles of his mother and father. Yet, Kubrick pushed it to the end:  
It was in the reign of George III That the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled: Good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor They are all equal now
In examining this there is one curious word that has echoes: “quarreled.” On his death bed Brian asks that his parents never “quarrel,” but Kubrick admits that the audience has just been watching a film showing people “who lived and quarreled.” Not “lived and laughed” or “lived and cried,” but “quarreled.” It is de rigueur to say that everyone, no matter their station in life, will one day be equal, but Kubrick decided it bore repeating. And “in the reign of George III?” Most everyone lives under some government or rule—is this Kubrick’s statement on humanity? His abacus for prefiguring carnage coming and past? The epilogue speaks egalitarianly to me, but it is in the spirit of many of his endings—we’re all fucked but we’re all in this together—especially The Killing, Paths of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut. His endings are cosmic, as if he were a seer stationed in outer space, peeking in on what makes us human and why we try and so often fail to be satisfied. If I attempt to account for the appearance of the Star-Child at the end of 2001, and my head tingles from reincarnation jitters, it is only because the apparent awe of that finale is too inspiring. Okay, rebirth—but what is the next step? Are we going to to do it right this time? How?
Kubrick is the great leveler. Dr. Bill, Jack, Barry, Alex, HAL, the government officials and generals, Humbert, Quilty, and Johnny Clay from The Killing—they all pay in different ways for their lies, their violence, their lack of conscience, and their unconsciousness. In no film is his leveling so explicitly voiced than in Barry Lyndon, because it concerns a society dependent on etiquette as reinforced by the circumlocutions and eschewals of language—language is as key to one’s survival then as avoiding bullets is today. To deliver the message in his films, Kubrick utilizes pregnant dialogue intrinsic to his characters and their faults, be they psychotic lovers or generals, a conniving computer, a band of rogues, a failed writer from Boulder, an unaware doctor in love with himself, the half-hearted figure of Barry Lyndon, or Barry’s stupendously innocent son Brian. They are all fated to the same end.

The Lady Hermit, Ho Meng Hua, 1972

Hinreißend ist, zumindest zunächst, das Verhältnis der beiden Hauptfiguren zueinander, die Art, wie sich die jungen Tsui Peng (Shih Szu), die Kampfsportlerin werden will, an die Fersen der Großmeisterin Yu Ling / Lady Hermit (Cheng Pei-Pei) heftet, die sie als einzige für sie taugliche Lehrerin identifiziert hat. Zum Beispiel: wie sie gar nicht bemerkt, dass die Lady Hermit bereits inkognito in ihr Leben getreten ist, als bescheidene, gebrechliche Dienstmagd. Oder auch, wie die beiden dann zum ersten Mal gemeinsam kämpfen, gleich auf Anhieb harmonisch vereint in einer Scope-Komposition. Lady Hermit ist in dieser Phase des Films noch immer eine prekäre Präsenz, sie wirbelt ein paar Minuten lang durchs Bild und verschwindet wieder. Ein wenig später huscht sie, in einer formal herausragend konstruierten Sequenz, durchs Gebälk eines weitläufigen Gebäudes, während sich unten Ärger anbahnt, wie eine Fledermaus hängt sie an der Decke, widersetzt sich dabei der Schwerkraft auf eine Art, die man gar nicht so genau nachvollziehen kann. Anschließend schwebt sie für ein zweites, ausführlicheres Gefecht zu Boden, es ist die schönste Kampfszene des Films, die weiß verschleierte Lady Hermit huscht rotierend durch ein nächtliches Tableau, eine blutig-sanfte Bewegung, punktiert durch stillgestellte Körpertreffer.

Noch immer allerdings ist Lady Hermit nur Retterin, nicht Lehrerin der stur ihr auf den Fersen bleibdenden Tsui Peng. Damit die beiden endgültig zueinander finden, bedarf es eines Showwoman-Maneuvers: Tsui Peng überholt die zu Fuß das Weite suchende Lady Hermit zunächst auf dem Dach einer Postkutsche, und materialisiert sich anschließend im Staub knieend vor ihr. Über Cheng Pei-Peis Gesicht huscht ein kurzes, anerkennendes Lächeln, die Sache ist entschieden. Die anschließende Ausbildungsbeziehung zeichnet sich zum einen durch eine außergewöhnliche, überbordende Emotionalität aus - die beiden fallen sich mehrmals weinend um den Hals; andererseits dadurch, dass die Lehrerin eine Katze in den Trainingsplan integriert.

Schade, dass das eh nicht allzu überzeugende Drehbuch es für nötig befindet, das wunderbare Miteinander der beiden Frauen im letzten Filmdrittel in eine Dreiecks-Eifersuchtsbeziehung zu überführen.

October 08 2017

Coffee Break

Diane Lane in Paris can Wait (Eleanor Coppola - 2017)

October 06 2017

Movie Poster of the Week: The Posters of the 5th New York Film Festival

Above: Polish poster for The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, Italy/Algeria, 1965). Designer: Jerzy Flisak.
As the 55th New York Film Festival winds down this weekend, I thought I’d look back half a century at the films of the 5th edition. That 1967 festival, programmed by Amos Vogel, Richard Roud, Arthur Knight, Andrew Sarris and Susan Sontag, featured 21 new films, all but three of which were from Europe (six of them from France, 2 and 1/7 of them directed by Godard), all of which showed at Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall. (They also programmed Gance’s Napoleon, Mamoulian’s Applause and King Vidor’s Show People in the retrospective slots). The only director to have a film in both the 1967 festival and the 2017 edition is Agnès Varda, who was one of the directors of the omnibus Far From Vietnam and was then already 12 years into her filmmaking career.
It will come as no surprise that the posters of 1967 put the posters of 2017 to shame. Illustration was still much in vogue in the late 60s, and many of these films were shown in Eastern Europe and thus have brilliant Czech or Polish designs to boot. Jerzy Flisak’s poster for The Battle of Algiers, the opening night film (for which “add $1.00 to all prices” the ad above says), Zdenek Kaplan’s for Yesterday Girl, and Karel Teissig’s for Young Törless are the definite standouts. I’m also a big fan of the clean design for John Korty’s forgotten American indie Funny Man and the stunning Romanian Samurai Rebellion. I’ve tried to find original posters from the era for each film, but in a couple of places (namely Jean Rouch’s The Lion Hunters and Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason) I’ve had to substitute more recent re-release designs, both very fine. Here they are, in alphabetical order:
Above: Polish poster for Barrier (Jerzy Skolimowski, Poland, 1966).
Above: French poster for Les Carabiniers (Jean-Luc Godard, France/Italy, 1962).
Above: French poster for Le Départ (Jerzy Skolimowski, Belgium, 1967).
Above: US poster for Elvira Madigan (Bo Widerberg, Sweden, 1967).
Above: 1973 Cuban poster for Far from Vietnam (Jean-Luc Godard, Joris Ivens, William Klein, Claude Lelouch, Alain Resnais, and Agnès Varda, France, 1967). Designer: Oscar Diaz.
Above: Hungarian poster for Father (István Szábo, Hungary, 1966).
Above: Yugoslavian poster for The Feverish Years (Dragoslav Lazic, Yugoslavia, 1966) and French poster for The Other One (René Allio , France, 1967).
Above: US poster for Funnyman (John Korty, USA, 1967).
Above: Swedish poster for Hugs and Kisses (Jonas Cornell, Sweden, 1967).
Above: French re-release poster for The Lion Hunters (Jean Rouch, France, 1965).
Above: Czech poster for Love Affair, or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator, aka An Affair of the Heart (Dusan Makavejev, Yugoslavia, 1967). Designer: Eva Galova-Vodrazkova.
Above: Spanish poster for Made in U.S.A. (Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1966).
Above: 2013 re-release poster for Portrait of Jason (Shirley Clarke, USA, 1967). Designer: Adrian Rothschild.
Above: Romanian poster for Samurai Rebellion (Masaki Kobayashi, Japan, 1967).
Above: Russian poster for Sons and Mothers (Mark Donskoi. USSR, 1966).
Above: Italian poster for The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (Roberto Rossellini, France, 1966).
Above: UK quad poster for Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London (Peter Whitehead, UK, 1967). 
Above: Czech poster for Yesterday Girl (Alexander Kluge, West Germany, 1966). Designer: Zdenek Kaplan.
Above: 1967 Czech poster for Young Törless (Volker Schlöndorff, West Germany, 1966). Designer: Karel Teissig.
Mark Harris has a great article on the films of the 1967 festival in his Cinema ’67 Revisited series at Film Comment, and you can read my other New York Film Festival flashback posts here: 1988, 1965  and 1963.

October 05 2017

The Boxer's Omen, Kuei Chi Hung, 1983

Der Film beginnt mit einem uktraharten Kickbox-Fight, ein Schlagabtausch ohne jede Zurückhaltung, es gibt da eine tolle, recht lange Einstellung, auf halber Körperhöhe durch den Ring schwebend, wie als ob es auf er Welt nichts mehr gibt als die beiden Körper und die Schläge, die sie sich einander zufügen.

Dass das angedeutete Box-Drama mit dem wahnwitzigen Geisterfilm, der The Boxer's Omen in erster Linie ist, nicht das Geringste zu tun hat, das habe ich erst mit der Zeit verstanden. Allerhöchstens geht es um eine ungefähre Äquivalenz des Rabiaten: Wo am Anfang Fäuste fliegen, wird nachher in knallbunten Eingewieden gewühlt. Alles gut ausgeleuchtet und primärfarbig angemalt. Auch eine Sexszene wenig später ist wenn nicht rabiat, so doch ähnlich bodenständig zeigefreudig: pralle Frauenbrüste, die sich exakt konturiert an die Fensterscheibe pressen. Aber es gibt, was diese Attraktionen angeht, ein unbedingtes Ungleichgewicht. Denn es ist keineswegs so, dass der buddhistische Budenzauber, in den die Hauptfigur alsbald Hals über Kopf verwickelt ist, auch nur irgendwie sich instrumentalisieren lässt für einen Kampfsportfilm mit generischem Racheplot. Oder gar für eine Liebesgeschichte. (Wobei der Sex später sozusagen zombifiziert wiederauftaucht, als weibliches, knapp bekleidetes Sexmonster und als penetrierende Laserstrahlen)

Nein, sobald es dem Film gelungen ist, seinen Helden aus dem halbwegs sicheren Hongkong nach Thailand und dort in einen Tempel zu locken, kennt er kein Halten mehr. Er fängt sich eine transkulturelle Besessenheit ein, von der er sich nicht mehr erholt. Es setzt sich eine (in filmsprachlicher Hinsicht von einer durchaus analytisch gedachten Montage betriebene) Transformationsmaschine in Gang, die wirklich alles in sich einverleibt, in sich hinein frisst, verwandelt wieder ausspuckt, dann in eine Krokodilleiche einschnürt, aus der sich wenig später wiederum andere Monstren erheben. Alles verwandelt sie in ihr Material, auch zum Beispiel Schrift, vor allem jedoch organisches Leben. Menschen wie Tiere sind erst einmal nur sich potentiell bewegende Dinge, die aus Haut, Farbe, Skelett, Eingeweiden und Flüssigkeit bestehen. Warum also nicht diese Elemente einzeln isolieren und neu zusammensetzen? Wieder und wieder? Die lustigen Neuschöpfungen können dann per putziger Stop-Motion-Technik durch eine Studiokulisse gehetzt werden, die wunderbarerweise stets gut ausgeleuchtet ist. Denn das ist vielleicht das wahnsinnigste an diesem Wahnsinnsfilm: Dass das eine gut ausgestattete Shaw-Produktion ist, die darauf achtet, das noch die größten Unfassbarkeiten sauber und effizient in Szene gesetzt werden.

“Don’t let anyone bite you”: Close-Up on David Cronenberg's "Rabid"

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. David Cronenberg's Rabid (1977) is playing October 6 - November 5, 2017 in the United States as part of the series Prelude to Halloween.
David Cronenberg is not my favorite director, but he is my favorite Canadian. Google him discussing Ferraris. Google him appearing on hokey chat shows in his twenties, his name embossed onscreen in Saved by the Bell shades of neon. Google him talking, period. His voice, a learned, Torontonian drawl, is as soothing and understated as his early films are not. Leonard Cohen was Canada’s collective father. Cronenberg is our cool uncle.
No body of work is so clinical and so salacious, or so Canadian.  
David Lynch is the obvious Cronenberg counterpart. Both men have remarkable heads of hair and are named David, both luxuriate in texture, both concern themselves with the underbelly, although the underbellies Cronenberg explores are more likely to have something burst from them, reversed caesarian style. Broadly, one could say that Lynch is preoccupied with the deficiencies of Americana. Does being Canadian qualify Cronenberg’s similar preoccupations as Canadiana? Are his disintegrating societies particularly Canadian? In works like Rabid, from 1977, I would say yes.
But first, what is the difference between Americana and Canadiana? Cronenberg feels this difference more than anyone, the invisible shifts in sensibility that mark out the borders of a nation. Americana is a confusion of wholesomeness and sublimated guilt: baking apple pie in a cabin that does not belong to you, the real owners tied up in the basement. The exaggerated emphasis on goodness is an obvious overwriting of a darker narrative. Canadiana is similar, but our national affliction is not guilt (although it should be) but sleepiness. Canada, viewed from anywhere on earth, is a vast, unknowable threat, second only to Russia in sheer size yet ranking somewhere below Finland in terms of perceived daffiness. Politeness, kindness, slowness: Canadian stereotypes all speak to a mollifying impulse. Cronenberg looks at his country, also mine, with the clarity of vision that is consistently associated with his work. He sees, and shows, that Canadiana is humbleness overriding an inherent menace, a goofy Mountie with a growling husky.  
In Rabid, the city of Montreal suffers a rabies-like epidemic that turns its victims into bloodsucking, oozing zombies. It could be many North American cities, but the important thing is that it’s not. Of course, funding from the Canadian government played a part in keeping Rabid focused up north, but Cronenberg’s preoccupation with Canada’s specific horrors means setting the film in Montreal was more than a necessity.
Let’s look at a map; if America has a heartland, then Canada is naturally the headland of the continent. The fears Cronenberg teases to the surface are as icy and cerebral as you would expect from someone ensconced in the North. Canada is naturally seen as wilder, less populated and therefore, less known than the country we border. The unknown, or only sensed, is inherently scary. Cronenberg is a master of horror because, like Lynch, he mines the subconscious.
In Rabid, the specific, buried, fear is of an oppressed element gaining (or regaining) power. When Rabid was made, Quebec was still reeling from the FLQ crisis, a traumatic chapter that saw martial law in Montreal and a series of kidnappings, bombings, and manhunts all related to the question of sovereignty for Quebec. This history lends emphasis to several moments in Rabid: when a British representative of the World Health Organization (Dr. Gentry, one of the film’s many silly/great character names), recommends martial law. This outrageously Anglo character imposing violent measures on a mostly French city isn’t the subtlest reference to Canadian history, but nothing about Rabid is subtle, and it’s the better for it.
The film opens with a motorbike weaving down a melting, half-snowy highway. There is an accident; the driver and his girlfriend are both hospitalized. Rose, the woman, is hurt worse than Hart, her boyfriend, and a plastic surgeon decides that the only way to save her is to perform an experimental skin graft. This is a Cronenberg film, so the plastic surgery clinic where this takes place is both hilarious and terrifying. The surgery is a success, in that Rose lives. It is not a complete success, though. Rose wakes up with an inability to digest anything other than human blood and a new, phallic, appendage hidden in her armpit.
Rose begins the film as a victim, of a motorcycle accident and a medical procedure gone wrong. She wakes from her coma posed as a victim too, this time in a comically porn-y scenario, laying naked in a hospital bed asking a fellow patient to “hold her.” (The actress who plays Rose, Marilyn Chambers, was well known for appearing in the golden era porno Behind the Green Door.) Throughout, Cronenberg has a keen and sarcastic eye for the everyday leering and harassment women face. Rose, in her new vampiric iteration, uses this imbalance as a hunting ground.
In Cronenberg’s oeuvre, heads explode and are examined, but what of armpits? Often, and confusingly, we speak of the underbelly of a society as “the armpit” of that society. In Rabid, armpits are further confused; they are sexualized. Rose’s stinger hides in an opening in her armpit that looks like an anus but could also be a low-budget vagina. Rose literally penetrates her victims, and the act of consuming their blood is always sexualized, she strokes their hair and embraces them, as if lulling them to sleep. Late in the film, when her boyfriend bursts in on her mid-kill, the scene has all the hallmarks of an uncovered infidelity. 
The underbelly of society, on the sides of highways and in sleazy movie theaters, is where Rose (and her armpit) can go to get relief. But by reveling in the underbelly, Cronenberg shows that even respectable public spaces are a breath away from chaos. In one sequence, Rose hits the mall, a lurid, neon-Christmas rush. One moment of violence sparks a chain reaction and not even Santa Clause makes it out unscathed. In Cronenberg’s Canada (and arguably, the real Canada), it’s a false belief that some places are bad and others wholesome; things get horrible anywhere people gather.  
No one can speak of Cronenberg without mentioning bodies and “Body Horror.” In Rabid, body horror takes on two meanings: as a horror film focused on the potential of bodily contamination, and as a horror film with an erotic sensibility. The film’s producers were well known in Quebec for then-shocking softcore movies, and Rabid has fun with the curiously porous boundaries between sex and horror. Casting Chambers in the lead is the most obvious example of this slippage, but there are countless instances of eroticism taking a horrific turn. When Rose shelters from the rain in a barn and is assaulted by a drunk farmer, or when she kills a man who sits next to her in an adult film theatre, Cronenberg plays with the presuppositions that govern so much of the cultural script contiguous to sex. Rose, who is the original, immune carrier of the epidemic that sweeps Montreal, unsettles the social order by unleashing mayhem and disease. She does this again, and more subtly, by upending the victim/aggressor dynamic of the most formulaic male/female fantasies. Again, and again, when she is picked up by a truck driver for instance, her vulnerable position is exactly what enables Rose to be a successful killer.  
But, is she an especially Canadian killer? Perhaps, in the sense that she is (seemingly) innocuous and invisibly menacing. Naming the lead character Rose highlights her innocence, something representations of Canada are often intent on highlighting as well. There are, of course, exceptions, notably Lynch. In Twin Peaks, the northwest is a site of evil and goodness. But it’s fun to note that the only Canadian characters, Jean Renault and the crooked Mounties, are uniformly nefarious and some are in uniform. Interesting that Cronenberg’s contemporary, John Carpenter, made his famous film The Thing about an isolated, cold place where evil was not distinguishable from friendship. The plot of that film speaks to the uncanny aspect of people who are only slightly different from you, almost imperceptibly so, a state of affairs that could also be the crux of Cronenberg’s Canadian vision.  
Often, Cronenberg’s insistence on remaining in Canada, to live and often work, is lauded as a defiant gesture, a loyal move. What if it is something else: opportunism. What if, like Joan Didion mining the unique relevance of California in the 60s and 70s, Cronenberg was in the right place at the right time. Could a director pre-occupied with horror hope for a more perfect landscape of fear than the one he has?  
Cronenberg did more than anyone to make Canada cool, not by creating something new, but by teasing out the dark waves that already color the country. It’s cold up here, and spooky. Cronenberg’s gift in Rabid is exposing just how spooky. 


The beautiful 400 plus page book LOST GIRLS: THE PHANTASMAGORICAL CINEMA OF JEAN ROLLIN is now available to order from Spectacular Optical. The book, which contains a stunning array of never before seen photos, is a must for Rollin fans and can be ordered here.

October 04 2017

Liliom’s arms

This is the last text of the Ghosts of permanence series on this blog. 30 texts in 50 days. I tried to match Daney's nearly daily rhythm when he was writing in Libération. I hope you enjoyed it.
Lilion's arms 
‘I’m sorry we didn’t have the chance to meet sooner,’ says Goebbels. - ‘Yes’. - ‘Will you have any trouble finding the way out?’ - ‘No’. 
This is how (in the strange Langopolis) a young American scriptwriter imagines the end of the famous dialogue between Goebbels and Fritz Lang. The latter does so well at finding the way out that a few minutes later he’s on a train bound for Paris. This is 1934 and Lang will never be the boss of Nazi cinema. On the 17 h 30 train, en route for Paris Gare du Nord, Lang is already the man who will turn the cinema against itself and denounce punishment with the very weapons of surveillance. The first director to have seen the threat of the audiovisual panopticon, the first moralist of the media yet to come, he leaves nascent television to Leni Riefenstahl and to Triumph of the Will. He will have his whole ‘American period’ to prove that cinema can, through ever more rigour, be useful
This is why there’s nothing more useful today than seeing Fritz Lang’s films again. And seeing them again on French television. Just as TV’s awash with reconstructed trials and mass-video redemptions, before the televised re-enactments of the trials of Petain or Barbie, it’s good to go back to Lang, who filmed a lot of trials and who, frequently, cited cinema as a witness. If the trial in Fury is better known than the one in Liliom, it’s because Liliom (1934) is a little seen film and, on the surface, not typical of Lang. It was adapted from the play by Molnar and filmed in Paris for his friend Pommer before leaving for California. The other thing is that the trial in Liliom takes place not on earth, but in heaven. 
Liliom is a harmless hooligan who proceeds through life like a Parisian ape man who never knows what to do with his arms. These are the arms of Charles Boyer, arms made to hold more than one woman, and which therefore know not what to do with the fragile body and stubborn love of Madeleine Ozeray. Liliom lets himself be persuaded by Alfred (the great Alcover) to get involved in some nasty business, which goes so awry that Liliom’s arm can find nothing else to do but to stick a kitchen knife in Liliom’s heart, and he dies. 
Lang wasn’t the kind who believed that death wipes out wrongs that need to be righted (‘That would be too convenient. What about justice?’). This is why Liliom, his corpse still warm, is arrested for a second time (‘We are God’s police’) by two pre-Wenders angels. Far, far away from Earth, the dead man is escorted to a celestial police station where the personnel (equipped, it’s true, with little wings) is the same as on Earth. Liliom, arms still dangling, guileless and truculent, struts in front of the police chief to no avail. To no avail, since the latter has an unprecedented card up his sleeve, the card of cinema
And so out of the celestial cinematheque there looms the film-as-a-witness of the life of Liliom Zadowski, and one scene in particular. On July 17, at 8:40am, Liliom slapped Julie because she’d let him drink all the coffee she’d made for them, so as (he says) to blame himself by setting herself up as a victim. The audience has seen this scene in Liliom and already found it beautiful, as they have found beauty in all the scenes played by two characters (with Lang’s camera, which sometimes will go straight for a detail before letting go). Now they see it again, in a private screening and in the company of Liliom, who is flabbergasted. But this time they see it as a jury or, let’s say, as film critics. What they’re saying now isn’t that Lang has style and that this style has what it takes, they’re asking themselves what this style is for, what is the use of this camera homing in and this eye seeking out a viewpoint to adopt. 
Lang was proud, but not so proud to compete with the Eye-in-chief of the divine gaze. Anyway this eye is an ear. Man invented the restless body of silent cinema, then the satisfied speech of the talkies. Man did not invent the resonant thoughts of a deaf cinema. In his wisdom (and in his own cinematheque), the Good Lord alone has the truly original version, with Liliom’s thoughts explaining Liliom’s arms; the thoughts that just need to be heard for these arms to become human. Indeed, throughout the whole of the scene-as-a-witness, his inner voice was reproaching him, and it was in self-disgust that he struck the woman whom he loved without being able to tell her so. 
It is the cinema that saves Liliom (and which we’re beginning to miss so dreadfully). 

First published in Libération on 17 January 1989. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

Rushes. Anne Wiazemsky, Harvey Weinstein, Alan Rudolph, "Reservoir Dogs" at 25

Get in touch to send in cinephile news and discoveries. For daily updates follow us @NotebookMUBI.
  • The luminously thoughtful French actress Anne Wiazemsky, indelible for her starring roles in Robert Bresson's Au hasard Balthazar, Jean-Luc Godard's Le chinoise, Pier Paolo Pasolini's Teorema and Porcile, and Philippe Garrel's L'enfant secret, has died at the age of 70. Part of her memoir Un an après has been adapted in the controversial film Redoubtable, which premiered at Cannes this year.
  • Significant writings concerning Miramax and The Weinstein Company co-founder Harvey Weinstein's sexual abuse are appearing far and wide: Ronan Farrow for The New Yorker, Jodi Kantor & Rachel Abrams for The New York Times, Heather Graham for Variety, and Naveen Kumar for VICE.
  • Uploaded five months ago and undiscovered until now: Neil Bahadur has found the first trailer for Alan Rudolph's first film in 15 years, Ray Meets Helen. View on Vimeo.
  • On the complete other side of trailer anticipation is the full preview for the next entry in the revived Star Wars franchise, Rian Johnson's Star Wars: The Last Jedi. A far cry in terms of budget and scope from his 2005 debut, Brick, but just as dense in insider argot.
People tend to think of Pulp Fiction as Tarantino’s essential L.A. movie—only at the intersections of Glendale would it be apropos for Butch (Bruce Willis) to run into Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) while stopped at a red light—but his first three movies are all equally rooted in the nondescript environs of downtown Los Angeles: “Jackie Brown” in the depressing sprawl of ticky-tacky tract houses, strip joints, and malls near LAX, “Reservoir Dogs” in the coffee shops and diners of Highland Park, and the funeral home in Burbank that doubled as the gang’s rendezvous point.
  • For The New Yorker, Tom Shone revisits and champions the over-criticized yet under-recognized qualities of Reservoir Dogs on its 25th anniversary.
  • Gérard Depardieu makes a delightful appearance in Claire Denis's Let the Sunshine In, which, along with a new book by the grand French actor, is the reason for Nick Pinkerton's gleefully unwieldy conversation with Depardieu Film Comment:
"Who pays for the art? Before, you had patrons of the art like the Medicis, who had the Pope in their family. You had Francis I for Michelangelo. Now, who are patrons of the art? It’s not Gagosian, because Gagosian is nothing. You have Bernard Arnault and François Pinault in France, who have money, but they don’t have taste. They try to make the value of artists, like Koons. Koons, I respect Koons, because he works with Cicciolina, and he finds that art and sex—it’s okay. So, he did his pieces with that very smart woman, Cicciolina—she isn’t just a vagina, she was smart. And Koons was smart. He did exactly like Rodin did. He multiplicated the artist, and took the best of them. I went to Venice two weeks ago, and it’s disfigured. It’s full of sculptures made of compressed plastic, of monsters from Atlantis. These sculptures are right in the middle of the buildings of Venice, with spotlights on them; it’s a rape. You also have now also the designer, like Felix Stark. He trying to put decorations in Venetian palaces. It’s shit. But I like Koons. Koons knows you have to fuck the stone to find the beauty of the thing."
It should be noted that the primary architects of Let the Sun Shine In—Denis, Binoche, Godard, and Angot—are all women, and that the movie contains certain scenes that are difficult to imagine were this not the case, and one in particular that I still can’t believe exists at all. An exchange between Isabelle and a girlfriend, played by Sandrine Dumas, it’s a showcase for Binoche, who in the course of a single unbroken take can be seen turning a 180 between girlish giddiness and wet-eyed despair, bemoaning “My love life is all over.”
"The choices I make is to show the performers and let them do everything, and make the scene happen on a set. Like Fred Astaire in his movies: when you see him dancing, you see him from head to toe and you know he’s doing every bit of it. It’s harder to get and you need actors who are comfortable getting punched in the face, which happened to all of them — none of them badly."
  • For The Film Stage, Christopher Inoa interviews S. Craig Zahler regarding his latest film, Brawl in Cell Block 99. We saw the film at the Toronto International Film Festival and loved it.
  • Last week we included an interview with Jonas Mekas—and here's yet another delightful dialogue with the Lithuanian-American filmmaker about his life in movies and his new book, for The Creative Independent:
  • "I always had a job of one kind of other to support myself because I had to live, I had to eat, and I had to film."
  • "It is no exaggeration to say that Twin Peaks is the great political work of our time," says Cahiers du cinéma editor Stéphane Delorme. His editorial introduces the latest issue of the magazine, which features Laura Dern in David Lynch and Mark Frost's Twin Peaks: The Return on the cover. Alas, its the only piece published online.
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